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March 2, 2013

Arkansas pressure gives Cats fits in 73-60 loss

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - The heat came and Kentucky wilted. Arkansas applied pressure and the Wildcats backed down.

There's no shame in losing at Bud Walton Arena - 16 of the 17 teams to visit this season have done so - but there was something in the way the Wildcats went down, something familiar and upsetting about the 73-60 setback.

"To me, it felt like we had turned the corner from this right here, what we just went through," forward Willie Cauley-Stein afterward, tapping the table in front of him for emphasis. "It seemed like we were past that."

The Wildcats (20-9, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) had seemed a tougher team in three games since an 88-58 loss at Tennessee, appeared to be finding their identity in the post-Nerlens Noel existence in which they'd been thrust by the freshman's season-ending knee injury.

But those games came at Rupp Arena.

And in front of 18,139 fans at Bud Walton Arena, the Cats buckled. Arkansas (18-11, 9-7) applied full-court pressure (UK had 18 turnovers), crashed the boards (the Hogs had 20 offensive rebounds) and beat Kentucky to loose balls.

The result was 69 Arkansas field-goal attempts to Kentucky's 43. The Razorbacks won comfortably despite shooting 34.8 percent to the Cats' 46.5 percent.

"We weren't as tough as them and we didn't play as hard as them and they wanted the game more than us, and that team usually wins," UK coach John Calipari said. "And they did. They deserved to win. They played better, they were better-coached. They deserved to win the game."

Only Syracuse has won at Arkansas this season, and at 17-1 at home, the Hogs are one of the NCAA's top homecourt teams. Calipari never expected his team to have an easy time on Saturday.

But he hoped it would at least put itself in position to win with some gritty plays, hoped that his players would respond to the pressure and the environment and play with some desperation.

Instead, Arkansas was the aggressor.

"Their staff's saying as we walk off, 'They are soft," Calipari said. "And I have to say, 'That's what it looks like.' It's just, when you get overwhelmed, you get anxiety, that's what happens. You back up. And we got a young team."

Kentucky also has a bubble team. The loss knocked the Cats out of ESPN's projected NCAA Tournament field, and with two regular-season games left to play, UK has its work cut out.

"Whether we get in the NCAA Tournament or not is not something we can control so we just have to go try to win these last two games that we have coming up and see what happens from there," said Archie Goodwin who scored a team-high 14 points in a return to his home state. "We can't dwell on this loss because we have another game coming up and we have to try and make an imprint on that one."

There are lessons to be learned from Arkansas.

The issue is that Kentucky thought it already had learned those lessons, had drawn them from losing at Florida and Tennessee two weeks ago. Point guard Ryan Harrow suggested on Friday that UK had turned a corner.

Cauley-Stein, who had 13 points, 10 rebounds, four blocked shots and five turnovers, indicated from his postgame comments that he'd assumed the same. So had Goodwin.

"I thought we had jumped over that breaking point and we were going to be able to run through the rest of these teams but, I mean, these guys played hard tonight," Goodwin said. "They're tough to beat at home but I think we still should have been able to win that game, we just didn't execute like we should have."

Calipari wasn't so sure his team had moved past the sort of fight-free effort it gave on Saturday. He was hopeful, but also concerned that young players sometimes "embrace success," he said, before they've achieved anything significant.

"I mean, I wake up every day, don't know how the team will play," Calipari said. "So I hoped that we were, but obviously, yeah, (we weren't)."


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