No Moral Victories – Sort Of

Dominique Hawkins played 15 minutes in the Kansas game. He had to guard Wayne Seltden. Selden had 33 points for the Jayhawks.

Dominique Hawkins played 15 minutes in the Kansas game. He had to guard Wayne Seltden. Selden had 33 points for the Jayhawks.

There were certain inevitabilities, building all season so far, that you knew would come together in an unpleasant blender of a tough loss.

You knew that, eventually, Isaiah Briscoe’s poor foul-shooting, late in the game, would hurt the Wildcats.

You knew that, eventually, the burden on Tyler Ulis of carrying the entire team on his shoulders would wear him out.

You knew that, eventually, this thinning hairdo of a lineup, its bald spots carefully combed over, would get windswept and exposed.

You knew that, eventually, Skal Labissiere’s inability to secure a rebound in his hands would be damaging.

You knew that, eventually, the frontcourt’s penchant for fouling would become a major issue.

And so Kentucky limped out of Phog Allen Fieldhouse with a sour taste in its mouth after a disappointing and dispiriting overtime loss.

But, by the way, this was far from a total disaster. Kansas was the fourth-ranked team in the nation, with a homecourt advantage. And not just any homecourt. This place where Dr. James Naismith – founder of the religion – coached college basketball is hallowed ground.

Alex Poythress scored 13 points versus Kansas.

Alex Poythress scored 13 points versus Kansas.

This is where Phog Allen, Larry Brown and Roy Williams plied their trade; where Dean Smith, Clyde Lovellette, Wilt Chamberlain, JoJo White, Danny Manning and Paul Pierce laced up their sneakers.

Kansas is as much college basketball white-and-blueblood as is Kentucky. KU vs. UK. And the crowd was into all of that.

Maybe they were still smarting from last year’s 72-40 beatdown, or the loss in the 2012 NCAA finals. Or maybe they’re still angry that Adolph Rupp left Lawrence and ended up in Lexington.

No disgrace to lose to Kansas in Kansas, where Bill Self’s home record is 200-9. Jay Bilas said it was like the Harlem Globetrotters’ record against the Washington Generals.

And in overtime, yet. With Kentucky’s bench looking like a special seating section for tall people. By the end, Marcus Lee, Derek Willis, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere sat side-by-side, all fouled out. Ulis didn’t have to play center, though at one point he got caught in a switch and had to contest one of Kansas’ big men underneath, one-on-one. Ulis’ heart is big, indeed, but heart didn’t win that time. Kansas scored.

Jamal Murray tries to score over Kansas player Jamari Traylor. Murray had 15 points and six boards.

Jamal Murray tries to score over Kansas player Jamari Traylor. Murray had 15 points and six boards.

By overtime, Calipari’s magician’s bag was pretty empty. The rabbits had all been pulled. And it’s difficult to go with a lineup that doesn’t include Briscoe. He’s an energetic and dynamic force who plays with a sixth sense: He sees openings – on the baseline, in the paint – that other people don’t see.

He pushes the ball and he drives. And he picks up fouls. Therein lies the problem. After making his first four free throws in the game, he missed six of his next eight, three in overtime when the game was paper-thin close.

Ulis played all 45 minutes, and in the second half, it was showing. He dominated the Jayhawks throughout the first half. But after his jump shot put Kentucky up by seven early in the second half, there was an excruciating three minutes when neither Ulis nor anyone else could pick up a point. The Cats failed to score for the next three minutes, only seven points over the next seven minutes. Naturally, the Jayhawks took advantage.

And poor Marcus Lee is beginning to remind me of the “Peanuts” character (Pig-Pen?) who can’t walk out of the house without getting messy and unkempt. Lee checks in at the scorer’s table and the refs all begin to shake the saliva out of their whistles. I’m not sure what he does on defense to deserve his uncanny record – he’s either fundamentally unsound or fundamentally unlucky.

The foul situations left Kentucky with some unseemly combinations on the court. When Lee, Dominique Hawkins and Charles Matthews are on the court together, you find yourself wondering, “Who’s going to score?”

And, having said all that, Kentucky nearly pulled off an upset that nobody would have predicted just two weeks ago. It’s the kind of game where the winner deserves to enjoy all the jubilation, but it still casts a furtive glance across the court. “Who were those guys? And are we going to have to play them again?”

And the losers, saying all the right things about “no moral victories,” know they’ve proven something on this night.

Now, hopefully by the time you read this, the Wildcats will have gargled and spit out the bad taste of an overtime loss with a win at Tennessee.

Uh, wait. Did you say at Tennessee? Not the road again!

That long, lonesome road. VT