Posted by MATT JONES
It was deja vu all over again for Kentucky fans Saturday night when Brandon Knight's three-pointer clanked off the side of the rim as time expired, giving Florida a 70-68 win over the Cats in Gainesville. For the fifth time this season, Kentucky went on the road, fell down by double digits in the second half, fought back to take the lead late, only to lose in the final minutes. Against North Carolina, Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama and now Florida, Kentucky has seen golden opportunities to grab road victories slip through its fingers down the stretch, each time in a bit more painful and frustrating manner than the last.
Against Florida, Kentucky stormed back from a 13 point second half deficit on the back of Brandon Knight. The freshman put on a spectacular show in the second half, scoring in bunches against former AAU teammate Kenny Boynton. Knight finished with 24 points, his ninth game scoring over 20, which tied the all-time Kentucky record for most games by a Freshman over that point plateau. And when Knight found an open Darius Miller for three with 3:40 left to cap a 22-6 rally that turned a 55-42 deficit into a 64-61 Kentucky lead, it looked as if the Wildcats would escape with a hard-fought SEC road victory.
But, like The Situation after a night at the bars on “The Jersey Shore”, the young Cats once again could not close the deal. On the ensuing two possessions, the Wildcats missed a rebound assignment, allowing a Chandler Parsons putback dunk, and then immediately followed it up by turning the ball over when Brandon Knight ran into a teammate attempting to set a screen. A three point lead turned into a one point deficit and Kentucky was forced to play from behind over the final two minutes.
Even still, Knight ended up with a relatively good look at the end to win the game. But after making his other four three point attempts, Knight was unable to connect on the last, sending the Cats back home with another defeat. Unlike in previous close losses, UK wasn’t beaten this time by a mental error, defensive lapse or a late jumper. But they were beaten nonetheless, finding a new excruciating way to drop a close game on the road. This edition of John Calipari’s team has been the bizarro version of the UK group from last season. The Wall/Cousins/Patterson team was 8-2 in games that were within five points going into the last television timeout, while this group is a pitiful 0-5 in such scenarios.
In all five losses, the Cats have failed in a different manner, but they have each followed the same general pattern. After falling behind by a large amount, the Cats have stormed back to take the lead, only to crumble down the stretch. This closing problem is disturbing, as it suggests the problems are not rooted in a continued lapse in preparation or random cold shooting nights on the road. But rather, Kentucky has simply been unable to perform in winning time. When the games are on the line and Calipari’s group needs one basket, rebound, loose ball or defensive stop, it simply hasn’t executed. Kentucky has found unique ways to be consistently anti-clutch, a death sentence for a team with Championship dreams.
Before the Florida game, Calipari told Dick Vitale that he didn’t much care whether Kentucky won the SEC regular season. That is good, as Kentucky’s chances of winning the conference regular season are quickly slipping away. The Cats are currently three games behind SEC West leader Alabama, and sit two behind Florida in the SEC East. Instead, Calipari told Vitale that he is only worried about how the team’s play will have an effect on the seeding in March, when he still believes his team can make a run.
In theory one could see how Calipari’s optimism about March is possible. His team has lost four games by a combined total of 8 points and is very close to being 20-2, instead of 16-6. However the difference in record is not one based on misfortune or a lack of luck, but rather a consistent inability to execute down the stretch and make winning plays as great teams must do.
Ohio State has been in five games in the Big Ten decided by five points or fewer. It is 5-0 in those games. Kentucky has been in five games in the SEC decided by five points or fewer. It is 0-5 in those games. The difference in the amount and margin of close games between the No. 1 team in America and Kentucky is quite small. But when contrasting Kentucky's poor performances down the stretch in game after game with those of the nation's best team, a paraphrase of W Clement Stone’s famous admonition about people comes to mind. There may be little difference amongst the top college basketball teams in America, but what little difference there is, makes a big difference.