Kentucky Drops Heartbreaker to Arkansas on Tuesday
LEXINGTON, Ky. – In another cruel twist of how the 2020-21 season has gone for Kentucky, the Wildcats appeared to have finally conquered their late-game woes with a valiant comeback vs. Arkansas only to see another game slip through their fingers in heart-wrenching fashion.
UK rallied from 12 points down with just over six minutes to go and took a one-point lead on a Davion Mintz 3-pointer with 12.3 seconds left, but Arkansas guard Jalen Tate grabbed an offensive rebound on the next possession and was fouled on the put-back attempt. He sank both free throws with 4.3 seconds left, and Olivier Sarr’s pass at midcourt was picked off to seal an 81-80 win for the Razorbacks on Tuesday at Rupp Arena.
“That ball was supposed to go to Olivier and then one of the guards and then we kind of didn’t get quite open,” UK head coach John Calipari said of the last play. “But, we were also going to look at BJ (Brandon Boston Jr.), who was open, and we passed him up, if you know what I’m saying. If you look at it, it was supposed to go to either BJ. If he’s open, throw it. He was open. We didn’t, which is OK.
“We threw it to Olivier. Olivier is catching it and throwing it to somebody and we’ve got our best 3-point shooters out on the corners and the wings. So, that’s what we were trying to do.”
Of all the brutal ways to lose a game this season with second-half leads, late-game collapses, and game-winning and game-tying shots rimming in and out (Sarr vs. Notre Dame and Louisville), this one might be the toughest to swallow.
Calipari, who has tried, tinkered and “tweaked” all season long to get his Wildcats headed in the right direction, didn’t let another heartbreaker get in the way of what he called a “breakthrough.”
“That’s the best we’ve finished a game,” Calipari said. “So, I’m like, I can’t be that upset.”
Kentucky lost its fourth straight game and its seventh in the last eight to fall to 5-13 on the season and 4-7 in the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats started SEC play 3-0.
Arkansas, now at 15-5 and 7-4 in the league, won for the fifth time in the last six games.
The Razorbacks appeared to be in firm control of the game late in the second half despite UK’s best 3-point performance in nearly nine years. The Wildcats made 14 of 26 from behind the arc to keep it close for much of the game, but their struggles from inside the arc, where Kentucky was only 11 of 35, allowed Arkansas to begin to pull away in the second half.
The Hogs put together two decisive runs. First was an 11-0 run early after halftime to turn a one-point deficit into a 52-42 lead. The Wildcats fought back to make it a 65-60 game with 8:05 left, but a 7-0 stretch put Arkansas up 72-60 with 6:11 left.
With all the second-half half difficulties UK has endured this season – of the Wildcats’ now 13 losses, they have led in 13 of them – and especially some of the late-game meltdowns, a 12-point deficit was the last thing Kentucky needed.
“I was going crazy in this game,” Calipari said. “I was not going to let them hang their head. I had to tell them, ‘We’re down four baskets (but) there’s five minutes to go!’ They look like the world ended. What?! And so, this was a breakthrough that way.”
The breakthrough was the response by the Wildcats. In a show of will and persistence, they listened to their coach and back they came.
First it was one of Boston’s career-high four-3-pointers. Then one of Sarr’s career-high three treys. After a Sarr dunk and a Devin Askew layup, Sarr hit another 3 to set up a thrilling finish.
“The reality of it is the team fought and they executed and they threw daggers today,” Calipari said. “Finally, guys threw daggers.”
Boston got the Wildcats within one at 78-77 with a 3-pointer with 27.8 seconds left. Arkansas hit one of two free throws at the other end, giving UK a chance to tie or win the game.
Kentucky went for the victory.
Davion Mintz sprung free for the final shot and drilled the final of his three 3-pointers for an 80-79 lead.
Davonte Davis missed on the other end, but Tate got the rebound in traffic and drew the whistle on Jacob Toppin.
“There were things that happened,” Calipari said. “I’ve got to go back and look at the last call, I mean, was it a jump ball? Was there body contact? Because this game was physical.”
In the end, Kentucky lost by a single point for the third time this season. That ties the 1957-58 team for the most one-point losses in school history.
Boston, who scored a game-high 17 points, said another heartbreaker won’t faze this team as it continues to fight for wins.
“I always keep it positive,” Boston said. “I feel like this was a game where we grew and learned. We finally fought the last five minutes of the game.”
In addition to Boston’s 17 points, Sarr recorded his third double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds, plus a career-high four assists) as a Wildcat, Askew enjoyed his second straight strong performance with 11 points and six assists, Mintz scored 11, and Keion Brooks Jr. posted 10 points and seven rebounds.
Kentucky tied its season high with 18 assists, won the battle of the boards by nine and cut down its turnovers to 11 this game.
“This has been one of those (years),” Calipari said. “I told them today, they worked hard enough and had enough bad things happen to them. They deserve something good to happen. But no one is giving it to you. You’ve got to take it. We got closer today to taking it.”