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April 3, 2011

Missed opportunities doom Wildcats

HOUSTON �" The pain was evident in the expressions worn in the locker room.

The hurt of coming so close to a shot at the national championship stung.

Kentucky fell to Connecticut 56-55 Saturday in the NCAA tournament semifinals before a record crowd of 75,421 at Reliant Stadium.

In the aftermath, the missed opportunities �" and the missed shots �" snuffed those dreams, aspirations borne of a season that had gained so much momentum in March before falling as flat as some of their jumpers in early April.

"We were tight in the first half," coach John Calipari said. "Our veterans were 1-for-12 [from the field]. We still had a chance to win the game."

The Wildcats (29-9) will look back at what could have been had they only executed a little better.

• A 9-of-32 shooting performance in the first half made things difficult.

• A 4-of-12 night at the free-throw line was damning.

• A 5:40 scoring drought that didn't end until just 1:37 remained was killer.

• And Brandon Knight's 6-of -23 effort from the field was crippling. He finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but couldn't explain why his shots by and large weren't falling. The shooting background in the cavernous stadium was not the issue, according to the freshman.

"I'm not going to use the arena as an excuse," he said. "We practiced in the arena at walkthrough and it wasn't a problem."

The tentative Wildcats (29-9) found themselves in a 10-point hole at halftime.

The amount of energy they had to expend to come back ultimately proved overwhelming.

"I feel like the shots we took looked like we were [tired]," said freshman Terrence Jones, who finished with 11 points and 15 rebounds in what might have been his final game at UK. "I respect everyone's decision when to shoot. I think we were a little tired and didn't fight to get closer to the rim over the last four minutes. We were missing wide-open threes."

A huge surge to start the second half kept things interesting. Kentucky came out on an 8-0 run fueled by 3-pointers from Knight and junior Darius Miller and layup by senior Josh Harrellson. The Wildcats seized the advantage five minutes in on another 3 by freshman Doron Lamb.

The lead would change hands three times before UK tied the game at 46 with eight minutes left. As much as the Huskies (31-9) tried to separate themselves, they couldn't in any substantial fashion.

Not until junior DeAndre Liggins' 3-pointer with six seconds left bounced off the rim was the issue in effect decided.

The mistakes and miscues were too much to overcome, if only by the slightest of margins.

"I guess we weren't expecting everything that goes on with the Final Four, all the pressure and everything," said Harrellson, who had six points and four rebounds. "We just came out and let it get to us."

The program will look different next season. Harrellson will graduate. Knight and Jones must decide if they'll test the NBA market.

"I'm not taking about that," Knight said. "I'm just focusing on this season. I can't tell you about the future."

Jones is considered the greater possibility to depart.

"I'm not really worried about NBA stuff right now," he said. "I'm just thinking about this team."

Hope for better days ahead in Lexington is not false. Another stellar recruiting class, featuring Mike Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer, comes on board next year.

The run that saw this year's team take care of Princeton, West Virginia, Ohio State and North Carolina was one to remember.

But on this night, the agony of coming so close to another title was foremost on the minds of those involved. The regret of not finishing the job was tough to take.

"We did a great job on defense," Jones said. "We got them to a number that coach wanted us to, 56 [points]. But it's hard to win when you shoot 33 percent."

And hard to take when despite less than your best, you lose a Final Four game by a point.



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