Winning close games has been an issue for Kentucky this season, a trend that continued in a 76-68 loss at South Carolina Tuesday night.
Three of the team’s four setbacks have been big single digits and two of those four games have been against Southeastern Conference foes. Kentucky blew a 14-point lead down the stretch in an eight-point loss to the Gamecocks, ending UK’s four-game winning streak against USC.
Although a little luck is involved when trying to win close games, Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox said more underlying issues are involved in the inability to seal the deal.
"We just gotta listen to coach Cal,” Knox said. “He was telling us things that we should have done down the stretch, winning plays, he says. And we didn't do that. We kind of took our own shots, ran none of the plays, playing no defense.
“We weren't listening to anything the coaches were saying. We got all freshmen. It's a learning experience for us. We're going to need it down the stretch in March Madness and down the road in some of the bigger games on the road. It's another learning experience. We'll go from here and learn how to make winning plays."
Knox, who is the team's leading scorer with a 14.6-point average, said the biggest issue is becoming complacent, especially when leading any given team by double figures.
“Like coach Cal told us, you get into the game, we're up 14, you think the game's over with, you're trying to do your own thing, basically,” he said. “And like Cal says, instead of getting it to 20 and taking the win and going home, next thing you know we tried to do our own thing, they get back into it, not listening, people trying to get their own baskets. So we just gotta stick together as a team and just listen to coach and we'll be fine."
Although the loss at South Carolina was similar to a 76-65 setback at Tennessee earlier this month, Calipari said latest setback as another learning experience of different kind.
“This game was ours,” he said. “All we had to do was grab it. No, the other games were throughout the whole game they were always close. We were never up big. This was a different situation for them. You're up, OK, finish the game. No, they just – there's an unwarranted arrogance that we get up, we're really good, or I'm really good and I'm going to do what I'm choosing to do, I'm not going to listen to what you're saying. That's what happened, and then it started rolling and all of a sudden we couldn't stop the onslaught. They deserved to win. There was no – this wasn't about us. This was about South Carolina."
Aside from Jarred Vanderbilt’s debut against at South Carolina, the Wildcats, now 14-4, had very little to build on in moving forward. Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander struggled, while the Wildcats didn’t make a 3-pointer until late in the second half, jeopardizing the team’s current streak of 1,031 games with a made 3-pointer.
"I was not aware of that and that was kind of late in the game, too, so it was real close to ending that,” he said. “But we just gotta keep working on our 3-point shot. We work on it a lot in practice. We just gotta knock them down."
Although a late letdown played a role in the team’s loss in Columbia, South Carolina scored the first seven points and led for most of the first half.
“We didn't come out ready to play,” Knox said. “We knew the strategy was—they knew that we were going to come out, they were going to deny passes and the first pass we threw, it got stolen, went down for a dunk, so Cal was not—he was really upset with that. We just got a lot of work to do in practice. We're freshmen, like I said. It's a learning experience. We'll bounce back. This is a good game for us. Good, physical team. We're going to see a lot more down the road."
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and web-site publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.