LEXINGTON — The 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats managed to make most of us forget, over an exhilarating, three-week NCAA Tournament run, that they are still, largely, 18-year-old kids.
It’s only been some 10 months since most of these Wildcats were more nervous about what to wear to their high school prom than what their emotions would be if they were blessed enough to play for college basketball’s national championship as freshmen.
So if we can pull ourselves away from seeing dreams shattered with the 60-54 loss to Connecticut in Monday night’s national championship game, we can remain amazed at what this Kentucky team accomplished.
We had been lulled into thinking Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky kids were toughened veterans as they fought their way through a tournament mine field, with wins over Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and then Wisconsin — the latter in the Final Four semifinals on Saturday night.
Kentucky’s road was as tough as any I can remember in the NCAA Tournament, thanks to the tournament selection committee’s farce of a decision to give the Wildcats a No. 8 seed.
But Calipari’s team tried with all of its might to make it work.
Time and time again on this tournament trail, the Wildcats played like they were immune to pressure, seemingly making every critical shot and grabbing every critical rebound.
But on Monday, when Calipari’s youngsters walked on the court at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and saw a championship game record crowd of 79,238, they finally blinked.
Connecticut’s veteran backcourt of wondrous senior Shabazz Napier (22 points, six rebounds, three assists) and junior Ryan Boatright (14 points, four rebounds, three assists) didn’t help Kentucky’s cause, of course. Napier and Boatright were especially tough early, when the Wildcats were a step slow.
Toss in the butterflies that Calipari admitted his players felt, and that combination of factors proved to be too much as UConn raced to a 30-15 lead in the first 14 minutes.
The Wildcats gathered themselves and trailed just 48-47 with 8:13 to go, but they couldn’t close the deal.
“You could tell early on that they were feeling the game,” Calipari said after one of UK’s most remarkable seasons ended with a deceptively non-descript record of 29-11.
The Wildcats felt it so much that freshman forward Julius Randle came out of the game after just two minutes-plus because of exhaustion.
“That was the national championship game in front of 17 zillion people, and he ran up and down the court three times and got winded,” Calipari said of Randle, a Dallas native. “It’s normal.”
Normal? Say what?
“Let me ask you, if you were 18 and you had to be in that kind of environment, and everybody (teammates) you looked at was 18, how would you do?” Calipari said. “Oh, you would make every free throw (UK was 13 of 24 at the free throw line) and dunk every ball. Especially with Boatright and Napier up under you. Or somebody trying to block it, or all of a sudden the thing swings and we may lose.
“All of a sudden, you’re 18, and you’ve got to react to that.”
Still, Calipari said he felt good about his team’s chances after the Wildcats regrouped and trailed just 35-31 at halftime.
But the Huskies were too tough to let this one slip away.
“They beat us to every 50/50 ball,” Calipari said, referring to UConn’s advantage in quickness, not effort.
The Huskies’ quickness showed all over the court, even on the backboard, where they out-rebounded the taller Wildcats 34-33.
It hurt, no doubt, that Kentucky did not have 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, who badly injured an ankle early in a regional semifinal win over Louisville and did not play thereafter.
But every team faces adversity. Kentucky was able to overcome it — until Monday.
“These kids aren’t machines,” Calipari said of his players. “They’re not computers. They’re not robots. I say it again: I wish I had an answer for them later in the game where I could have done something to just click it where we needed it to go.”
Calipari said he’s proud of his players, as well he should be. As we all should.
“Even in this loss, I can’t believe what these guys got done together,” Calipari said. “Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed in each other and just kept fighting.”
Freshman swing man James Young led the Wildcats Monday with 20 points and seven rebounds, followed by Randle with 10 points and six rebounds.
“These group of guys are special,” said Randle. “We have been through a lot this season. How we kept fighting and were able to make this run says a lot about the guys. I just hate that it ended like this.”
CELEBRATION AT RUPP
UK officials planned a public celebration this afternoon, set to start at Rupp Arena shortly after the team plane landed at Blue Grass Airport around 2 p.m.
Free tickets were distributed, starting at 8 a.m., at the Rupp Arena box office, with a limit of four tickets per person.
Doors were slated to open at 1:30.
The celebration was scheduled to be televised on WKYT.