By LARRY VAUGHT
I was in Rupp Arena on Feb. 14, 1998, when Kentucky lost an 11-point halftime lead and lost to a not-so-good Mississippi with an effort that had a lot of UK fans booing the Cats.
I thought about that as I watched Kentucky blow a 17-point lead at Rupp Arena Tuesday night and lose to a not-so-great Tennessee.
“Maybe we needed it for the NCAA Tournament. Hate to say that but maybe it was a blessing in disguise,” Kentucky senior Nate Sestina said after UK’s eight-game win streak ended.
Well, for the 1998 team it was because coach Tubby Smith’s Comeback Cats went on to win the national championship and I guarantee you after that Ole Miss game no Kentucky fan was thinking that was possible just like not many UK fans are thinking that is possible today.
Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t do his postgame radio show court side at Rupp Arena. Instead, he sent assistant coach Kenny Payne who didn’t hide his disappointment over UK’s lack of effort the final 15 minutes.
“Really disappointed in the guys. One of the things we have talked about is how our guards have to come down and rebounded. In this game when rebounding was such a vital part of what we are doing, we don’t rebound,” Payne said. “No excuse for that.”
Kentucky missed some open looks but Payne said that was not why UK lost.
“The game was not lost by missed shots but it was lost by a lack of competing,” he said.
Could this blown lead and loss shake the team’s confidence so close to postseason play or even going into the game Saturday at Florida, a team UK struggled to beat at home recently?
“I hope not. I think any time you deal with young people it is something else. We work hard, train hard, go over game plans. We truth tell each other. If you don’t play well, we tell you the truth about it,” Payne said.
“You would hope they don’t lay into this loss. You would hope they are more motivated now. You would hope the way we compete will make a statement about who we are.”