INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — For 38 games top-ranked Kentucky mastered the art of the tune-out, brushing aside the hype, noise and distractions created by its pursuit of an unbeaten championship season.
The Wildcats just couldn’t succeed at blocking out Wisconsin and big man Frank Kaminsky, who won 71-64 Saturday night to turn their dream season into a devastatingly sour footnote.
“It feels terrible,” freshman forward Trey Lyles said in a silent and somber Kentucky locker room. “It just doesn’t feel real at all. There’s a lot of emotions going through our heads.”
Hoping to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to finish as unbeaten champions, Kentucky (38-1) instead lost the rematch of last year’s semifinal against the Badgers and joined Indiana State (1979), UNLV (1991) and Wichita State (2014) — unbeaten teams that lost in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky fans invaded Indianapolis comparing these Wildcats, not to the other three teams playing, but to some of the dominant teams in college basketball history. Instead, fans will remember the 2015 squad as a dominant regular season team that couldn’t close the deal.
The fortitude and good fortune that helped Kentucky overcome several stiff challenges this season were absent down the stretch against the determined Badgers (36-3), who made shots and grabbed the rebounds that the Wildcats couldn’t.
“We just didn’t execute like we did all year,” freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We always executed at the end and we just didn’t this time.”
Though Wildcats fans who made up the bulk of the crowd at 71,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium applauded the team as they slowly walked off the floor, their disappointment was palpable. They didn’t expect an ending like this, not after a season that frequently featured dominant performances — especially in marquee games.
Asked how he wants Kentucky to be viewed, freshman guard Tyler Ulis said, “it really doesn’t matter to me. I just feel like we wanted to win the national title and didn’t do it, so the season was a waste.”
Unlike most young teams that lose at this stage — including the 2014 Wisconsin team — most of these Wildcats won’t be back for redemption. Many of the stars are expected to enter the NBA draft early.
Kentucky overcame a 52-44 deficit to lead 60-56 and seemed to have the momentum before Wisconsin outscored the Wildcats 15-4 down the stretch. The Badgers appeared to benefit from a missed shot-clock violation that ended up with a game-tying basket by Nigel Hayes. The play wasn’t reviewable, and the Wildcats never recovered.
“It sucked the air completely out of us,” sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. “But there’s bad calls in basketball all the time.”
Kentucky struggled on offense late, three times running the shot clock down and missing a late shot.
Not even 16 points by Towns or 25 combined points by Aaron and Andrew Harrison could save the Wildcats, who talked more about winning the school’s ninth national championship than the streak that consumed college basketball. That was the goal all along for players and coach John Calipari, who touted hoisting the title trophy above all the chatter of going 40-0.
Kentucky players believed that as long as they won games, history would take care of itself. But Kentucky reached the point of no return once it got into the NCAA Tournament, where the end of its school-record streak would also end the season.
Other than last weekend’s 68-66 escape of Notre Dame in the Midwest Region final, they were rarely challenged by Hampton, Cincinnati and West Virginia.
Along came the Badgers, who had the center to go toe-to-toe with Kentucky’s big men in Kaminsky, the national player of the year. And Wisconsin indeed asserted itself with two leads that put the Badgers on the verge of putting it out of reach.
Kentucky battled back but just couldn’t finish, being outrebounded 34-22 including 12-6 offensively. Those numbers, especially on the scoreboard, left the Wildcats with a loss and a bunch of what-ifs.
“They wanted to win every game,” assistant coach John Robic said, “and they almost did. It’s going to sting them for a little bit but they’re kids and I think this will help them in the long term in their careers.”
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