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Clutch Run Ends for Kentucky in Title Game Loss

ARLINGTON, Texas — What could have been hung over Kentucky’s locker room like a storm cloud. The Wildcats had just lost in the national championship game, and only when Connecticut was up six and dribbling out the clock in its final seconds did it seem possible that Kentucky couldn’t conjure any more magic. Aaron Harrison said all he wanted in that moment was for the game to start over. “But you don’t get start-overs,” he said.

The championship game will be remembered for what it was: For the first time this postseason, Kentucky flinched. It didn’t match its opponent’s intensity in one aspect of the game, and with how fragile this all is, that was enough. A determined Huskies team that ranked outside the top 200 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages dominated the glass. Kentucky’s 27.8 offensive rebounding percentage—percentage of total offensive rebounding opportunities won—was its fourth-worst of the season, and given Kentucky’s poor shooting from the field and free-throw line, it was too much to overcome.

Even still, the Wildcats were still within four points with 1:08 to play. The filament hadn’t quite popped until Lasan Kromah’s pair of free throws with 25.1 seconds to play after the Wildcats had wasted 50 percent of the remaining clock without fouling.

Kentucky took the ball up with 25.1 to play, and seeing that team so desperate and out of control after the run it had didn’t seem right. This was the tournament’s darling team that seemed in total command of how games ended, and here it was chucking threes toward the hoop not because anything could be done at that point, but because you can’t simply concede. Kentucky, for once, had been defeated.

But it would be a shame if Monday’s loss ultimately defines this team. In all likelihood, it won’t. Folks around here tend to remember teams either for the things they accomplished or the transcendent moments that toppled them, and Monday’s loss—though equally crushing for Kentucky and triumphant for UConn in Kevin Ollie’s first NCAA Tournament as a head coach—didn’t immediately have that vibe.

Only a few teams in recent memory seem to be remembered for what wasn’t accomplished. The 2003 squad that ran undefeated through the SEC is first remembered 11 years later for Dwyane Wade’s triple-double in the Elite Eight. A year later, Kentucky earned another No. 1 seed, and that team’s lasting legacy is its round-of-32 loss to UAB.

But even teams that fell short of national championships aren’t all remembered for what got in the way. John Calipari’s first team brought fun back to Kentucky after Billy Gillispie dragged the program as deep into the ground as it had been since Eddie Sutton was fired two decades earlier. Even if the Wildcats didn’t make that Final Four because of a horrid shooting night against West Virginia in the Elite Eight, the idea that Kentucky was back in the title picture was enough. The Wildcats were alive.

A year later, Kentucky was 1-7 in SEC road games, and nobody expected the Final Four run that was to follow. Enes Kanter never played that season, and that team never had the faintest feeling of one that could make a run like this year’s ultimately did. Those Wildcats won’t be remembered for their loss to Connecticut as much as they will for John Calipari’s smile when DeAndre Liggins checked out once the Elite Eight game had been won. It remains one of lasting images of Calipari’s entire tenure to date.

If this year’s team were runners-up, it was going to take a Laettner-level moment for it to be remembered for something other than the divine four games that lifted it to the last game of the season. Fred VanVleet’s three missed right, and Kentucky stormed the court in St. Louis. Aaron Harrison—man, Aaron Harrison—hit the corner three on a dish from Julius Randle with 39 seconds left to top Louisville, and then he hit free throws with two seconds left to make the margin two possessions. Then it was Harrison again and again, hitting his threes over Caris LeVert and Josh Gasser that ensured Kentucky would play for its ninth championship. That it fell short is significant but, given a season’s worth of context, not disappointing.

The team won’t be remembered for the identity it struggled so hard to find all season, but for the one it finally unearthed. They were the Clutch Cats, and they were among Calipari’s most impressive jobs ever in a career full of them.

“I really don’t want to think about how we’re going to be remembered,” Willie Cauley-Stein said when asked. “I just kind of want to hear about it, you know what I’m saying? I don’t want to speak about it. I want to go read about it, or have somebody see me in Wal-Mart and speak about it. That’s what I really want to feel, then it’ll give me more of a sense of how people really think they remember us by instead of us thinking how we should be remembered, you know what I’m saying? I think it’d be better if somebody tells us how we’re remembered.”

Some ambivalence may linger when thinking about the opportunity lost Monday—to be fair, a bit of that still exists about the 1997 team—but that won’t live forever. What will is the euphoria each unexpected win, every one more dramatic than the last, brought to the Commonwealth. In living rooms across the state, email threads across the world and at some point in a Wal-Mart aisle 40 years from now or next week, that’s how Kentucky will be remembered.

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.