Kentucky finishes memorable run with heartbreaking loss
ARLINGTON, Texas — There was nothing to be said.
Kentucky filed one by one through gray double doors to its locker room and nobody made a sound.
NCAA president Mark Emmert didn’t have any congratulations or a trophy to give as he walked by Kentucky’s locker room. UConn’s 60-54 win in front of 79,238 — the biggest crowd ever to see an NCAA title game — meant Emmert saved both for the victorious Huskies.
About 60,000 of those cheered the Kentucky blue, but as confetti cannons boomed and Huskies star Shabazz Napier collapsed on the floor at AT&T Stadium, all that was left for the Wildcats was silence.
"No one understands what we’ve been through," guard Andrew Harrison said.
Preseason expectations crushed Harrison, his twin brother Aaron and forward Julius Randle, the biggest pieces of what many called the greatest recruiting class ever assembled.
When they didn’t meet them and floundered to a disappointing start and a fall out of the polls after being preseason No. 1, fans and media crushed them a second time.
Aaron Harrison called Kentucky’s run as an 8-seed to the national title game the "best time of his life," but Monday’s loss left the Wildcats crushed again, and silence was all that remained.
Harrison, who hit game-winning threes to send Kentucky to the Final Four and to the title game, sat facing his locker with his head in his hands. His voice cracked and he spoke in hushed tones as he searched for answers for why his dream, in what likely will be his only season of college basketball, didn’t come true.
The silly preseason chatter of a 40-0 season seemed miles away after a 21-8 start, but the sting of watching Napier steal his trophy and Most Outstanding Player award was fresh. He sleepwalked through repetitive questions requesting he rehash coach John Calipari’s postgame speech and "how hard" it was to lose.
"He said he was proud of us," Harrison said. "And that we didn’t win, but we had one of the best runs in college basketball history."
The Wildcats KO’d Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to reach Monday night’s title game. All four closed the season ranked in the top 12. Monday’s loss, though, means Kentucky took home only memories for its efforts.
His team’s 13-for-24 mark from the free-throw line Monday night was far from sophomore forward Alex Poythress’ mind when a reporter asked if that was the culprit for the locker room’s silence. Poythress closed his eyes and opened them with a glare sideways as he exhaled an exasperated sigh.
"It just hurts so bad to get so close," he said. "All the hard work you put in throughout the season and you get here and you’re on the losing end of it."
Randle slowly walked out of the locker room with blank eyes that had teared up during Calipari’s final postgame speech of the season. He covered his face with both hands on the back of a golf cart on the way to the postgame press conference with teammate James Young, who led the Wildcats with 20 points.
Minutes earlier, New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, who keyed Kentucky’s last title in 2012, tried to gain entrance through those gray double doors, even if he couldn’t relate to his bluegrass descendants’ pain. Security stopped him and he took a seat on the back of a flatbed golf cart nearby. Eventually, Kentucky sent a representative who walked him into the locker room.
Randle, already a shy personality, slumped in a corner and stared to the side as he mumbled answers to questions he’d have loved not to answer.
Guard Dominique Hawkins leaned over his knees on the right of a group of 20 reporters swarming Randle. He stared at the ground with his hand covering the top of his head.
Center Dakari Johnson flanked Randle’s left side in a gray Kentucky sweatsuit and stared at eight empty chairs facing a white dry erase board.
Hours earlier, the silence in the locker room seemed anything but inevitable. The Wildcats had rallied from a 30-15 deficit and trailed just 35-31 at halftime. They sat in those chairs, with discarded towels, empty water bottles and Powerade cups littering the floor and knew the nerves that plagued them early and contributed to a slow start were behind them. They were certain their second-half performance would make sure nobody remembered that embarrassing March 1 loss to 14-20 South Carolina and everybody remembered this night.
"We were as good as everyone said we were," Andrew Harrison said. "We just took awhile to put it together."
At halftime, the last time they had walked through those doors to the locker room, the best moment of their lives seemed so close. UConn’s ability to deny Kentucky a lead for one second of the 40-minute game pulled it away and showed how quickly the best moment can slip away and become the worst.
"Time just ran out on us," Randle said.
There was no appearance and postgame congratulations from rapper Drake like there was on Saturday, when the Wildcats beat Wisconsin. He was busy posing for a photo with former UConn star Rip Hamilton, who joined another Husky great, Ray Allen, in the Connecticut locker room to take photos with the new national champs and celebrate the program’s fourth national title since 1999.
The laughs and indiscriminate yells in UConn’s locker room were absent from Kentucky’s locker room. So was the championship trophy, which DeAndre Daniels clutched while answering questions about his eight-point performance, highlighted by a first-half dunk on Johnson.
The Huskies were snapping selfies, hugging and doing everything they could to remember the night. Kentucky just wanted to forget.
When the questions had been answered and the media thinned out, Andrew Harrison made his way to the locker room’s bathroom and bent over at his hips in front of a sink. He buried his head between his elbows on the counter in front of the mirror on the wall. Young joined him.
Harrison looked up. Their eyes met. Young shook his head.
There was nothing to be said.