SYRACUSE, N.Y. - John Calipari insisted all season his first Kentucky team wouldn't succumb to the one major weakness it had displayed when the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament shined brightest.
Perhaps that was just wishful thinking.
The Cats' fatal flaw came to fruition at the worst possible time for the Cats, who were battered in a 73-66 defeat to West Virginia in front of 22,497 fans at the Carrier Dome. The defeat left UK one victory short of a Final Four berth for the fourth time since its last national championship in 1998 and likely ended the careers of John Wall, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins.
West Virginia's rugged, experienced squad manhandled the Cats all evening, frustrating them unlike any team had done all season. The Mountaineers' length in a 1-3-1 zone forced UK to shoot from outside where they misfired in epic proportions (4-of-32) and collapsed from the free throw line (16-of-29), another season-long Achilles' heel.
To cap off the demoralizing trifecta the suffocating defense the Cats displayed at the end of the season unraveled as the offensive frustration mounted.
"I think we were the best team in the country, hands down, but we didn't play like it," senior forward Ramon Harris said. "We've had games like the before but we still won. It just wasn't our day. We just couldn't get on the same page. We just couldn't overcome it. Usually when we were in a situation like this we overcame it but we just weren't able to this time. We just couldn't get those key stops, they just kept applying the pressure and never let up."
"We missed shots, we gave up shots, West Virginia outplayed us, we played bad defense, we gave up lay-ups," freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins added. "They're a good team. They beat us. They outplayed us. They were more physical, they were allowed to be more physical and just outplayed us. Even with that we've had games where we missed (free throws and threes) and still won but our defense gave up a lot of lay-ups. We played bad defense."
West Virginia's combination of experience and grit trumped the raw talent of UK. Each time the Cats attempted to make a second half surge the Mountaineers - coached by noted grinder Bob Huggins - mustered a momentum-sapping bucket to further zap the fight out of Calipari's squad.
"I don't think we took bad shots, they were almost all open," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "We had great looks. The 1-3-1 rattled us a lot I think and we weren't able to execute. It was a night where we weren't able to hit shots. Even our best three-point shooters couldn't make them. It's happened before in the past and our defense allowed us to win the game but it didn't work out like that. We're a defense and transition team and they weren't there like they had been in the past."
In one of the most bizarre halves of basketball you'll ever see a team that typically couldn't find the target from arm's length threw in eight three-pointers in the first half and missed all 16 of its two-point attempts. West Virginia made a pair of triples to start the game and then hit three in a row to turn a 16-9 deficit into an 18-18 tie. While Kentucky was turning the ball over (10 in the half) the Mountaineers were draining everything they threw up from beyond the arc, including the first three of the season by point guard Joe Mazzulla.
Meanwhile, the Cats started to show some of the emotional immaturity Calipari had worried about all season. Curtis Shaw whistled DeAndre Liggins for a technical foul and Wall had to be restrained while barking at Shaw as the teams left the floor at halftime. Shaw then barked back and forth with UK assistant coach John Robic, making a hand motion that suggested he wasn't taking any more from the UK players or bench.
As the lead swelled to 16 deep into the second half UK continued to fire away. The Cats missed their first 20 three-point attempts before Liggins swished one with 3:25 remaining to key one last charge. A Darnell Dodson triple sliced the lead to 70-66 with 25.6 seconds remaining but he drew all air on a three from the corner after West Virginia made a free throw, ending the Cats' hopes of a national title.
"This year hurts the worst because we had the opportunity, we had the team, we had all the right pieces to win the national title and we fell short," Patterson said.
In the end it was a nightmare.
"I wish I could just wake up from a bad dream but this is real," Cousins said.
Matt May is the basketball beat reporter for The Cats' Pause. If you have questions or comments about the Cats e-mail him here.