By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
In most sporting events it’s not always about the winner winning the game. Sometimes it’s about the loser losing it. Most analysts who cover games and fans that watch them always talk about the big play made at the end by a certain player on the winning team – think Aaron Harrison in the NCAA tournament – but sometimes it’s about the losing team making a play or not making one.
For instance, let’s take Kentucky Football. (If you are squeamish skip these next couple of paragraphs). On November 9th in 2002 the UK Football team had the No.16 LSU Tigers beaten at Commonwealth Stadium. Then with no time left on the clock the UK secondary failed to knockdown a “Hail Mary” pass that was tipped twice and fell into the hands of a wide receiver that had gotten behind UK’s prevent defense. The LSU receiver caught the ball and raced into the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown and the win. UK made the losing play to end the game.
Or maybe this one from just last season. UK Football – a team that has a historical winning percentage below .500 – had a 30 game losing streak going into the Florida game at Kroger Field. Kentucky was the better team that night but two losing plays kept them from the victory. Twice during the game an unguarded wide receiver caught a pass and trotted into the end zone for a touchdown. UK lost 28-27. Perennial losers found a way to lose.
Now on to the UK-Vanderbilt basketball game on Tuesday night. UK came into the contest ranked No.21 with a record of 16-5 on the season. The Commodores record was 8-13 overall. The entire game Vanderbilt played like the ranked team while the Wildcats struggled to look like a team ranked in the Top 100. But in the end the winners and losers separated themselves.
Down the stretch the Vanderbilt players found a way to lose – by the way Vanderbilt was 2-38 against Kentucky in Rupp Arena. A perennial loser. There’s a reason the Commodores are now 2-39 in Rupp Arena. They couldn’t make winning plays at the end of regulation and at the end of overtime. Vandy’s Riley LaChance – shooting 83% from the free throw line for the season – with Vanderbilt ahead by a score of 70-67 missed on a one-and-one with 19 seconds to go in regulation. UK then scored a layup to cut the lead to 70-69.
Later with UK trailing by two points with 5.8 seconds in regulation Vandy’s other hot shooting guard Jeff Roberson – an 86% shooter from the foul line- made the first of two shots. He missed the second one and the rebound caromed off into a group of players and was grabbed by Kentucky’s Shai-Gilgeous Alexander right before he was leveled by Vanderbilt’s Joe Toye. UK’s Alexander calmly walked up to the line with two seconds left and knocked down both free throws to tie the game and send it into overtime.
In overtime Vanderbilt fell behind but came back to tie the game at 81-81 with 11 seconds left. Then inexplicably the Vanderbilt defense allowed Quade Green to drive the ball in for an uncontested layup to make the score 83-81 and that proved to be the winning basket. Once again losers found a way to lose.
Losing is a habit. It is re-enforced every time a team loses a game. It begins to weigh on the players. They think about it at the end of games. It would hard for Vanderbilt’s Riley LaChance to not be thinking about the three free throws he missed at the end of the Kentucky game played earlier this season at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym when he stepped up to the line on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena. Those missed free throws cost Vanderbilt an opportunity to pull out a win that day also.
In every sporting event there is a winner and a loser. Sometimes winning teams make winning plays but many times it’s the losing team that makes the losing play. It’s no offense to the players on the losing team. It’s more of a mindset of the winners. They expect the perennial losers to lose and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It happened again Tuesday night in Rupp Arena because some how, some way those Wildcats believed they would pull out the victory and the Vanderbilt players believed they would lose. And they did. For the 39th time in Rupp Arena.
It just seems inevitable that as much as they don’t want to, losers find a way to lose. As fans you feel sorry for them, you hate it for them but to break the cycle something extraordinary has to happen. Losing players have to make a winning play. Over and over and over again until they believe they will. Fortunately for the Wildcats Vanderbilt is not there yet.