Just The Cats crew during some happier times in Music City (left to right: Dr. John Huang, Larry Vaught, and Michael Bennett)
(NASHVILLE, Tn.) – For the second straight year, the Kentucky basketball team walked off the floor of Bridgestone Arena with obvious season-ending disappointment etched across their faces. Last year, the dreaded ‘Rona robbed them all of the total tournament experience. This year, it was the familiar bugaboo of late game execution that resulted in a crushing one-and-done-appearance. The 74 – 73 defeat to Mississippi State was a microcosm of the entire season of travails, one in which Kentucky fought hard but fell short way too many times.
“[I’m] disappointed in the season, but not disappointed in these kids,” said an obviously dejected John Calipari afterwards. “We weren’t what we thought we could be at some different spots. We’ll address that when the season’s over, or when this winds down, I should say.”
Kentucky (9 – 16) trailed by 15 points early in the second half. Fueled by a red-hot Dontaie Allen, the Cats rallied to take a 71 – 66 lead with 4:30 to play before the Bulldogs exerted their will and pulled the plug. The few thousand Kentucky fans in the stands held their collective breaths as Allen’s three-pointer at the buzzer clanged helplessly off the rim.
“I mean, you can’t really ask for a better shot, especially from someone like me that has confidence in myself,” said the sharpshooter from Pendleton County. “I had it lined up straight. It just hit the back end, so…I don’t know. I’ll live with that. It was a good shot.”
Allen finished with a team-high 23 points on 8 – 15 shooting (6 – 13 three-pointers). Ironically, it was the same career-high point total he had in the Wildcats’ earlier win over the Bulldogs.
For the Big Blue faithful, the city of Nashville has morphed from a metropolis of endless pleasant dreams to one of horrific never-ending nightmares. It seems like just yesterday the Big Blue mist was basking in the glory of scintillating basketball memories, characterized by extended tournament runs coupled with late nights on Broadway.
Those experiences are no more, at least not this year. The smattering of fans allowed in the arena—although predominantly wearing blue—just couldn’t generate the ebullient critical mass of year’s past. Memories of Boogie and Wall in a game-tying celebratory sprint, or Dom and Derek rising to the occasion with their Kentucky hearts on fire remain just that—memories.
Gone also is the excitement around the downtown honky-tonks, much of it due to the recent Christmas Day terrorist bombing. Much of the infrastructure remains unrecognizable. That’s sad. You can never underestimate what the pep rallies at the Wild Horse Saloon did for fan enthusiasm and morale during tournament week. It’s who we are. It’s how Big Blue Nation rolls.
…And it was all uncharacteristically missing, just like the fight we’re used to seeing with a Calipari coached team.
“My teams historically played like if they lost, they were going to the electric chair,” Calipari summarized. “This team did not. Times we did. But maybe physically we weren’t capable of that. But you know what, here is what I would say. For them to play how they started that game, then to play the second half the way they played, says something about them. They never quit on anything. They didn’t quit one time this year.”
Neither should Wildcat fans ever quit on Nashville. A couple straight years of disappointment in Music City shouldn’t erase four decades of unadulterated joy. I guarantee you the blue mist will be back in a couple of years (next year’s tournament will be in Tampa) en masse.
Trust me, when that happens, it’ll be a sure-fire cure for the Nashville blues.
Parts of this blog posting were submitted in my coverage of the SEC Tournament for Nolan Group Media.