Kentucky's season ends short of reaching the Final Four
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Already prepared to lose seniors Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder to graduation, Kentucky awaits its annual NBA draft decisions by talented underclassmen in its latest spring roster cleaning.
The Wildcats' current group of highly regarded freshmen came within seconds of reaching the Final Four, but they will take some time before announcing future plans.
Kentucky needs a few days to move on from Sunday's 75-73 loss to top-seeded North Carolina in the NCAA South Regional final in which Malik Monk's game-tying 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds remaining was followed by Luke Maye's game-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left.
''That (Maye) shot is just playing back and forth in my head,'' point guard De'Aaron Fox said, weeping as he put his right arm around fellow freshman Bam Adebayo and pulling him close. ''It's going to be difficult to get over, but I know I've got to.''
Kentucky (32-6) was ranked No. 1 briefly last fall and mostly maintained a top-10 presence despite marquee losses to UCLA, Louisville and Kansas - not to mention a 22-point drubbing at Florida in February. The young Wildcats expected those growing pains but matured to win a third straight Southeastern Conference championship and resemble a national championship contender.
''I mean, we had a great year,'' said Fox. ''We were winning games, coming in here looking like nothing happened. That just showed we had bigger goals than getting to where we were.''
Kentucky's question, as always, is who remains in what figures to be its second major overhaul in three seasons. Besides the rarity of losing three seniors, the Wildcats' top four scorers could depart.
Fox and Monk are projected as possible NBA draft lottery picks, but neither was immediately ready to discuss their futures after the tough loss. Said Monk, ''Gotta talk to my mom, brother and coach about it.''
Added Fox, ''I love these guys. And I'm not thinking about what's happening next.''
Adebayo has been projected from a mid-first to early second-round selection. Briscoe is also considered a prospect after working out with NBA teams last spring to improve his game and draft stock.
Coach John Calipari - who last week signed a two-year contract extension that will keep him at Kentucky through 2024 - appeared encouraged by the Wildcats' play in the NCAA Tournament. And his underclassmen relished taking charge.
''We all fought,'' said the 6-foot-10 Adebayo, who averaged 12.9 points and 10 rebounds during Kentucky's 14-game winning streak before Sunday's ending left him crying in the locker room.
''People said we didn't care; that we were ready to do our own thing. But as y'all can see, there's a lot of emotion in here. It shows that all of us care and we wanted to win. ... Everybody was with one another. That's why we clicked so well.''
Monk was voted the SEC's top player and newcomer of the year by The Associated Press in a season he averaged 19.8 points per game. The Arkansas native set a Kentucky freshman scoring record with 47 points in an epic 103-100 victory over North Carolina in December.
Fox battled injuries and illness to rank second at 16.7 points - including a career-high 39 as Kentucky beat UCLA in the Sweet 16 to avenge the earlier loss - along with a team-high 165 assists. Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe (12.1 points) improved in many areas and had emerged as a leader on and off the floor. Hawkins and Willis provided experience and became key contributors down the stretch.
Kentucky's defense had also improved in recent weeks, but foul trouble was a factor in losing to UNC.
Now, next year's core group could have a much different look - as it usually does in Lexington.
Freshman forwards Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones seem likely to return along with 7-foot sophomore Isaac Humphries and 6-10 redshirt freshman Tai Wynyard. Freshman Hamidou Diallo (6-5) will play next season after practicing and watching this semester.
They must mesh quickly with another highly touted recruiting class that at first glance could be the closest thing to rebuilding Calipari has faced since arriving at Kentucky in 2009. Then again, overhauls are an annual challenge and this month's deep tournament run again proved his mastery at bringing a team together for the most important part of the season.
''You look at it, and guys stepped up,'' Calipari said after Sunday's loss. ''We never played those guys. We play them in practice some, but I was proud of them.''
AP freelance writer Jason Smith in Memphis, Tennessee contributed to this report.
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