Kentucky's pursuit of perfection ends in stunned silence with loss to Wisconsin

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- As the empty possessions and shot-clock violations kept piling up, as this entire dream of a Kentucky season came crashing down in a way no amount of star recruits could salvage, John Calipari called for someone to throw him a white towel.

He was standing on the sideline of Lucas Oil Stadium, facing futility in the final minute, his blue side of the joint that had rolled up I-69 seeking a coronation now startled into silence.

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Kentucky players watch from the bench during the second half of the loss to Wisconsin. (AP)
Kentucky players watch from the bench during the second half of the loss to Wisconsin. (AP)

The Kentucky coach kept rubbing the towel over his face, effectively wiping off the sweat, less so the frustrated reality of seeing something so grand fall so fast. He eventually threw it down and walked, with the final seconds still ticking, to give Bo Ryan a congratulatory hug.

Wisconsin 71, Kentucky 64.

The chase for perfection: 38-and-Done.

Done was the clutch execution – one made basket in the final 6:32. Done was the season-long dominance on the glass – outrebounded by 12, limited to six offensively. Done was the steely defense down the stretch – instead it was Wisconsin that forced those three consecutive shot-clock violations.

And done was the clutch play of the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, who after all those nights coming up huge couldn't duplicate the magic. They may have dragged the 'Cats here again, they may have combined for 25 points, but in the end there was a series of misses leaving Andrew, angry on a podium, caught whispering an expletive and racial slur under his breath.

It was that kind of collapse.

Done, just like that, was a late four-point lead, melting into a complete mess, with half the Kentucky bench leaving the floor without shaking hands, the Wildcats coaches trying to corral them back. In the stands there were tears streaming down in blue, and jump around, jump around on the other end, before all those Badgers fans -- the Grateful Red --went out and tried to drink all the beer in Indiana between now and Monday's national title game against Duke.

"I look up, 'we're up four,' " Calipari said of the second half. "I'm like, 'we're going to win this thing.' Then, you know, a play here, a play there, all of a sudden we don't post it. They crowd us, we don't post it again, we take a late shot. We're not a team that takes shot-clock violations. We got three."

He was trying to process it, not just the how but what it all meant. This was a gut punch for Big Blue, not just because it got beat, but because it got beat when it was so close to everything, because it got beat when so many thought it couldn't, that it got beat when it actually played pretty well.

Nigel Hayes (10) drives against Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns (12) during the second half. (AP)
Nigel Hayes (10) drives against Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns (12) during the second half. (AP)

The whole best team ever, the whole perfect team, perfect season, was proven to be little more than a ruse.

Kentucky was good. Wisconsin was better.

"You think about this," Calipari said. "We had six turnovers for the game. We shot 90 percent from the free-throw line, 60 percent from the three, 48 percent from the field and we lost? What does that mean they did?"

It meant, Calipari noted, that the Badgers beat them on the boards, forced them into bad shots in the most critical of moments and played with complete confidence in the face of history with as many as seven Kentucky players ready to declare early for the NBA draft.

The Badgers did it with their own perfect, if seemingly unlikely, unit – a bunch of guys from brewery towns such as Sheboygan and LaCrosse, oddballs with funny nicknames such Frank the Tank, a loose group will built from 12 months of waiting for a rematch, from working toward avenging last year's 74-73 Final Four loss.

Wisconsin walked on the court and looked at Kentucky – not with any sense of awe, not wondering if it was beatable, not up at all its size, but like it was five guys from Madison Y.

"Obviously they were undefeated but we didn't look at their record or anything like that," Bronson Koenig said.

This is Wisconsin Basketball, the ideal antidote for the Wildcats machine.

"You know," Calipari said, "I told my wife before the game, 'we could lose. They're good enough to beat us.' "

"They are not in awe of that situation," Greg Gard, Wisconsin's associate head coach said. "Everybody makes a big deal about how they joke around and are loose, that's how they are … [Saturday night] we talked about don't try to be someone you aren't. If we play to that we'll be fine."

They were who they were. Frank Kaminsky with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Sheybogan Sam Dekker with 16 points. Nigel Hayes and Koenig adding 12.

"I'm going to tell you a little bit of a story here," Kaminsky said. "I was playing FIFA in the room, you know, we had so much time [Saturday]. One of my buddies from back home came and we were talking. He said if I had 20, Sam 16 or 18, Nigel would have 12 and either Bronson or Josh [Gasser] would add 10 or 12 we would win by seven points.

"It's just too weird not to bring up."

Wisconsin bench celebrates as Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein walks off after the loss. (AP)
Wisconsin bench celebrates as Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein walks off after the loss. (AP)

So maybe Kentucky was cursed, maybe this was fate; maybe Frank the Tank and his buddy playing FIFA had formulated the game plan. So much had been made about these Wildcats, the early season destruction of contenders, the bulldozing of the SEC, the chase of history that Calipari had pushed for three years ago. So much talent. So much it called for platoons to be formed.

In the end there wasn't enough, though. Thirty-eight and done, done, done. Thirty-eight and gone, gone, gone. A locker room so quiet you could hear the refrigerator running. A golf cart full whisking away to the press conference, full of players staring off into nowhere or hiding under towels.

"They took us on an absolute ride," Cal said of his players.

This was a coach trying to spin this into some kind of bright light.

"But 38, what these guys did in a row, incredible stuff," he continued.

Except the season ended in game 39.

"They're hurting right now," Calipari said.

That feeling will linger into history too, deep, deep into Kentucky history.

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