Tennessee Waltz, Texas T-Step

Derek Willis turned his ankle in the second half of the game versus A&M.

Derek Willis turned his ankle in the second half of the game versus A&M.

First of all, what a horrible way to lose a game. I suppose, given Kentucky’s overwhelming lopsided dominance of the SEC,  there have been many games like this one over the years that went the Wildcats’ way, so no SEC campus is being sympathetic to Kentucky’s bad luck.

But right after Isaac Humphries snatched what should have been the winning rebound out of the air and was fouled, he sort of threw the ball against the court. To call it a “slam” would have embarrassed most true slams. A spike wouldn’t have admitted what Humphries did was even a close relative.

Nonetheless, it was, in some officials’ view, an emotional outburst worthy of a technical foul.

The shame is that young Humphries was carrying the Cats through overtime after a procession of Kentucky’s big men had given up one offensive rebound after another to Texas A&M – something like 17 in the first half alone. But down the stretch, Humphries was containing the boards with his big shoulders and strong hands. He ended the game with 12 rebounds in 20 minutes of play.

Appropriate, perhaps, that the Aggies’ winning basket at the buzzer was on an offensive rebound. With Humphries tied to the bench after fouling out, Kentucky’s lineup consisted of four small men and Skal Labissiere.

Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield fouled UK’s Jamal Murray when he went up for a shot.

Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield fouled UK’s Jamal Murray when he went up for a shot.

Marcus Lee had also fouled out, and Derek Willis had been helped from the court with what looked like a badly sprained ankle.

Kentucky’s offense seemed somewhat sluggish and disjointed most of the game. A lot of dribbling around the perimeter, a lot of two-man ball between Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, a lot of one-on-one play, a lot of desperation shots at the end of the clock.

Rarely were Kentucky’s looks open or their shots uncontested. Murray was fighting for his shot opportunities all night. Ulis had some trouble penetrating and often was throwing shots up from the far part of his range. Fortunately, Ulis’ range is pretty much anywhere this side of the mid-court logo.

And, of course, A&M was shooting well. That’s why the road is such an unforgiving place to go win a game.

Cruelly, earlier in the week, Kentucky was being talked about for a potential championship run after rolling over Tennessee at Rupp, two weeks after giving up a 21-point lead to the Volunteers in Knoxville.

That was Kentucky at its best, including an out-of-his-mind, 25-point performance by Willis, one in which he hit seven threes. The penetrating drives of Ulis and Murray seemed to pull the defense in like iron shavings toward a magnet, leaving Willis uncovered in the corners and on the perimeter.

It was so dominant that it was a shock to see that the final margin was just 10 points. It was fun, winning, high-level basketball. But then the Cats had to turn around and go to College Station in just two days, and that’s always a rugged turnaround.

The A&M students called for a technical foul when Isaac Humphries spiked the ball in the last few seconds of overtime at A&M.

The A&M students called for a technical foul when Isaac Humphries spiked the ball in the last few seconds of overtime at A&M.

The A&M arena was filled, a white-out crowd excited and screaming. All that was missing was the A&M coach wearing a cheesy white suit. Billy Kennedy didn’t. Some coaches do. Some coaches, like some brides, should simply not wear white.

My rule is that complaining about the officiating is a loser’s game. But when a referee steps in to unnecessarily control the outcome of an extraordinarily close contest in overtime, to plant his ego in the road like the national flag of Hey Look at Me – well, that does require lodging a complaint.

So what’s the prognosis going forward? If Willis is hurt significantly enough to miss several games, I think the lineup becomes Lee and Humphries playing with the three guards, and Skal, Dominique Hawkins and Charles Matthews coming off the bench until Alex Poythress returns. (Cal seems to have lost faith in Mychal Muldar, though on this team productive contributions off the bench have often come from surprising resources.)

The hope is that Lee will be able to limit his fouls, that Murray and Ulis will hit enough shots to keep the score close and that Briscoe will take many fewer jump shots than he did against Texas A&M and keep driving to the hoop, where his out-of-control rushes are maddening but surprisingly effective.

Based on his pre-technical performance at A&M, Humphries can provide some bulk underneath on both boards and a nice soft shooting touch.

Maybe it’s said every year (with the probable exception of last year), but Calipari is really being forced to coach with this team. And in the past, he’s usually coached those teams right into the Final Four. VT

Photos by VICTORIA GRAFF