Devin Askew snatched the ball away from Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi, spun up the floor, and tossed a pass Tom Brady would have admired into the hands of B.J. Boston. The five-star recruit, out in front of the pack, leapt high and crammed down a dunk to put Kentucky up ten.
Rupp Arena bumped in a way it hadn’t all year. The environment was electric. The ecstasy-driven crowd roared. For a moment, all was right in the world.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the high came crashing down. A massive orange wave enveloped Cawood’s Court, and put the Cats out of their NCAA Tournament misery.
It was a tale as old as time for the 2020-21 Kentucky squad, but that doesn’t mean its 82-71 loss at the feet of the Volunteers hurt any less. In fact, it probably stung even more than each of the previous defeats. Now seven games under .500, even the most faithful members of Big Blue Nation will be forced to acknowledge this Wildcat team’s only destiny is that of a car on its last legs.
“I don’t know what to tell you at this point,” a slump-faced John Calipari told reporters postgame. “We are playing good enough to win, and then we hit a stretch where we don’t score a basket.”
You know the story by now. The Cats come out of the gate wheels’ screeching, going stride for stride with their foe for about thirty-six laps before the gas tank dries in the last four.
Except tonight, one key detail was different: Kentucky actually had Tennessee in its rearview for the first twenty-eight trips around the floor. But for the final twelve, it was eating dust.
Motor oil poured into the rotating motor in the form of eleven turnovers. The pistons, pumped by a beneficial first-half whistle, began to sputter. And before anyone knew it, the Cats were choking on not only the smoke from the Volunteers’ exhaust, but that which spewed from their own engine.
“We're just not executing… once stuff starts to hit the fan, we don't know how to snap back,” Keion Brooks Jr., who paced Kentucky in both points (23) and rebounds (11) said afterward. “I don't think anyone is scared, like pissing down their leg or anything. We're just not disciplined enough to close the game out.”
Perhaps more insulting tonight is how the Vols pressed on their turbo. It wasn’t buoyed by the experienced frontcourt duo of John Fulkerson and Yves Pons (six points combined), but the freshman backcourt tandem of Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, who racked up a 50 piece.
Their outstanding effort stoked BBN's preseason mirage of Boston and Terrence Clarke. While the Wildcat couplet has been unable to meet expectations, the Volunteer one has thrived.
“They were the best two guards on the court… they bullied us,” Cal said. “[They] went wherever they wanted to.”
Sitting at 5-12, Kentucky is clearly not going where it desired on its regular season laurels. An SEC tournament title – which usually felt guaranteed – is its only method for March selection, and would be an absolutely miraculous turn of fortune, no matter the optimistic façade Kentucky’s head coach continues to sport.
“I’m worried about the next game. I'm not worried about next season or conference tournament,” he said. “We're not that far off.”
Slotted at tenth in the SEC standings, the Cats are just about as far off from their perch as they could be. They’ll try to avoid falling further into the depths on Tuesday versus Arkansas. Tip off is set for 7:00 p.m. E.T. on ESPN.