HOUSTON — Fifty-six.
That was Kentucky’s magic number before its Final Four matchup with Connecticut. Hold the Huskies to 56 points, Wildcat coach John Calipari told the Wildcats, and you’ll be back in Reliant Stadium on Monday night, playing Butler for the national championship.
The ‘Cats held up their end of the bargain. Overcoming a miserable first-half start, they dug deep and held UConn to that magic number. But Calipari had miscalculated ever so slightly.
“Coach didn’t count on us shooting 33 percent,” senior center Josh Harrellson said. “You’re not going to win many games shooting like that.”
Most of the damage was done in the first half, when Kentucky shot a season-low 28.1 percent to UConn’s 51.9 percent. The Wildcats trailed 31-21 at halftime.
“I just think everybody was a little nervous,” Harrellson said.
“I think we were timid,” guard DeAndre Liggins said.
“We didn’t play as aggressive as we should have,” said Darius Miller.
As timid, nervous and passive as the Wildcats were in the first half, they were the polar opposite in the second, outscoring the Huskies 11-2 to take a 35-33 lead. The game was Kentucky’s for the taking, but another dramatic finish wasn’t meant to be. Even the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament hero, Brandon Knight, couldn’t pull them over the edge. He drained yet another three-pointer as the final buzzer sounded, but it was one agonizing point short of sending the game into overtime.
Fifty-six points was enough for UConn to escape into Monday night’s championship game. Fifty-five points ended Kentucky’s season.
“We had our chance to win the game,” Calipari said. “As a coach, that’s all you can ask. Give us a chance to win. They gave us a chance. It’s disappointing, but it’s been a heckuva year.”
Calipari’s second team at Kentucky fell one game short of its goal, but it will be remembered. After five players were taken in the first round of last June’s NBA draft, Calipari had to start over with freshmen and a trio of returning players, one of whom, Harrellson, had been an afterthought much of his career.
Worse, the player Calipari and his staff thought would be a difference maker, Turkish center Enes Kanter, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA because he’s competed in a pro league in his native country. Harrellson had to step into the void.
If there’s a player who epitomizes Kentucky’s season it’s Harrelleson. The Wildcats had to have him, and he delivered, finishing second in the Southeastern Conference in rebounding and turning himself into one of the heroes of March Madness.
“A lot of people doubted me,” Harrellson said. “I think a lot of people were looking on to next year. I’m happy with the way [he progressed], but I’m also happy for my teammates. For this team to get as far as it did, that means a lot.”