ARLINGTON, Texas — Another team coached by John Calipari was done in at that harmless strip of paint just 15 feet from the basket.
After shooting well from the free throw line much of the season, the young kids from Kentucky wilted when it mattered most Monday night. Their inability to make one of the simplest shots in basketball was a big reason why they lost 60-54 to Connecticut in the national championship game.
“Well, you could say that, but the way we started the game probably cost us the game,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team found itself in an early 30-15 hole and never led.
Still, Kentucky was 13-of-24 from the foul line, and missed its final three attempts, when the game was still hanging in the balance. The last of them, a miss by Alex Poythress, would have cut the Wildcats’ deficit to 56-53 with 3:47 remaining in the game.
Instead, the lead swelled to six when DeAndre Daniels scored at the other end for UConn, and the Wildcats never had a chance to get within a single possession the rest of the way.
Making it all the more frustrating: UConn was 10-for-10 from the line.
Asked whether that decided the game, Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison replied, “Maybe so.”
So instead of Calipari’s latest bunch of one-and-done stars cutting down the nets during “One Shining Moment,” it was UConn joyously romping around the court inside AT&T Stadium, the confetti falling from the rafters as Kentucky players filed slowly toward their locker room.
Their free throw struggles immediately brought back memories of the 2008 title game, when a Memphis team coached by Calipari struggled down the stretch against Kansas.
In that game, the Jayhawks fouled the poor-shooting Tigers when they had to rally late in regulation. Memphis responded by missing four of its final five free throws. And that was enough for Kansas to overcome its big deficit and ultimately win the game in regulation.
During that stretch before OT, Kansas made all of its shots — including its free throws.
Asked whether it entered Calipari’s mind, he replied flatly: “No.”
UConn was just as maddeningly efficient as Kansas at the line, though, making the troubles of Kentucky all the more glaring: The Huskies never missed, and their final two free throws by Lasan Kromah with 25 seconds to go sealed their fourth national championship.
James Young was 8 of 9 from the foul line for Kentucky, and finished with 20 points. But the rest of the team was 5-for-15, including lousy shooting from Julius Randle (4-of-7) and fellow big man Dakari Johnson, who was 1-of-4 the line.
It wasn’t just the misses that hurt the Wildcats, either. It was their inability to get there.
Their best foul shooters, twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harris, only made it to the line once — Aaron missed the attempt.
“Tough way to go out but at the same time, we proved a lot of people wrong,” Johnson said. “We just had a great season and obviously we would have wanted to be on the other end the last game. We just had a tremendous season and we shouldn’t feel down.”