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12 SECONDS: A Kentucky basketball tragedy

Samuel Colmar
Kentucky head coach John Calipari reacts to a foul call during the Kentucky vs Vanderbilt mens basketball game on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tennessee. Kentucky won 109-77. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff

Wednesday, Feb. 21, 11:14 p.m. ET.

In Lexington, Kentucky, fans were going to sleep frustrated and dejected, but in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the party was just beginning as the Tigers of LSU conquered the No. 17 Wildcats.

Hundreds of fans and students piled onto the court at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center after an improbable sequence of events by the Tigers. A sequence that some — including LSU head coach Matt McMahon — may struggle to believe had they not witnessed it themselves.

“I really don’t have the words to describe it,” McMahon said after the crowd had died down.

Taking a step back, the game at LSU was not supposed to garner the attention it ultimately would. John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats entered the Pelican State favored after conquering the Auburn Tigers in Neville Arena, a venue far more feared than that of the 2024 Maravich Center.

Facing a struggling LSU squad — which entered the contest fighting to remain above .500 on the season — Kentucky exploded on a 10-0 run to end the first half of play and, after coming out in the second half with back-to-back 3-pointers, the Cats led 42-27, a 15-point gap that, at the time, seemed insurmountable.

Loudly playing was all the LSU band could do to try to shut down the audible “Go Big Blue!” chants beginning to break out as traveling UK fans were all but certain this one would get ugly for the home side.

Kentucky guard Rob Dillingham looks at his coach during the Kentucky vs. Florida mens’s basketball game on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 94-91. Photo by Abbey Cutrer | Staff (Abbey Cutrer)

Having been held to just 27 points in 20 minutes of basketball, the Tigers were on pace to have one of their worst offensive performances all season and, while Kentucky wasn’t known as a defensive power, it had been strong in its last two games.

Those chanting fans would soon be disappointed to find out that brief moment of ecstasy — that brief moment where Kentucky was unbeatable — was the best they were going to get.

Almost immediately LSU turned on the jets, fighting back into the game and eventually reclaiming the lead, forcing Kentucky to spend the bulk of the final quarter of play fighting from behind, desperate not to fall back into the trap that had seen it lose three straight home games prior.

While one could argue they didn’t deserve it, the Cats were given their golden opportunity to escape victorious when a turnover by LSU’s Jordan Wright gave Kentucky control of its own destiny.

Possessing the ball with 28 second left and down one, any made points would give the Cats the lead and that’s exactly what they got when superstar freshman Rob Dillingham drained a jumper with 12.3 seconds left on the clock.

With home fans stunned, the score read 74-73 Wildcats.

“Coach just said, ‘If you’re open, take the shot,’” Dillingham said about his decision. He continued with the benefit of hindsight, but trailed off as he defended the play.

In college basketball, 12 seconds is a long time. It goes against the psyche to imagine it as such, but dreams can be fulfilled or crushed in far less.

For the Tigers, 12 seconds was all the opportunity they needed.

“If you miss you want (time) to (get an) offensive rebound,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said in defense of the decision. “(In a) tie game you gotta wait. (In a) one point game you don’t and you hope your defense comes up with a loose ball.”

As the seconds felt like minutes it was Wright who took the ball down the court and attempted the game winner for LSU, but he was denied by Adou Thiero.

Kentucky guard Adou Thiero (3) watches the ball during the Kentucky vs. Saint Josephs mens basketball game on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 96-88. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff (Samuel Colmar)

In another universe Thiero’s block granted the Cats an ugly-but-hard-fought win as they left Louisiana on a three-game winning streak to face the SEC-leading Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday.

That universe isn’t this one.

With the ball stopped, any number of Wildcats on the court could have come down with it and won the game, but when hands finally reached the basketball they weren’t Thiero’s. They weren’t Dillingham’s. They weren’t even Antonio Reeves’ or Reed Sheppard’s. No, they were Wright’s.

Grabbing his own blocked shot, Wright had the awareness to throw it to Tyrell Ward, who instinctively put up the shot that will likely live long in the memory of Tigers fans in attendance.

As the backboard lit up red and the clock hit zero, that swish of the net meant one thing: heartbreak for Kentucky.

“I gave up a little bit on the last plays so that’s on me a little bit,” Dillingham said, seemingly in a state of shock after the game. “A lot a bit actually.”

With Ward being quickly swarmed by a mob of fans in attendance that included star women’s basketball player — who led the Tigers to the 2023 National Championship — Angel Reese, it perhaps wasn’t his actions on the court that stung UK hearts the most, but rather his words after them.

“We just wanted it more,” he said as teammates loudly cheered in the hallway behind him. “Plain and simple.”

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About the Contributors
Cole Parke, Sports Editor
Abbey Cutrer, Managing/Photo Editor
Samuel Colmar, Assistant Photo Editor

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