What went wrong for Kentucky in rare upset loss to Evansville


Kentucky head coach John Calipari yells down the court during the game against Evansville on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Evansville won 67-64. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Mohammad Ahmad

Just three games into the season, the nationally top-ranked Kentucky men’s basketball team will soon no longer be number one.

The Evansville Purple Aces (2-0), a Missouri Valley Conference team, came into Rupp Arena and shocked the basketball world with a stunning 67-64 upset of the Wildcats (2-1). Kentucky’s loss was its first as a No. 1 ranked team in the nation playing at home for the first time since losing to the Lonzo Ball-led UCLA Bruins on Dec. 3, 2016.

There were a series of mishaps, missed opportunities and shortcomings on Kentucky’s part to go with what the former Wildcat Walter McCarthy-led Purple Aces were able to accomplish in the remarkable upset.

“Evansville deserved to win the game in every aspect. They out-rebounded us, they out-toughed us, they made more threes, drove us for layups. I mean, they deserved to win,” UK head coach John Calipari said after the game.

The Purple Aces came out right out of the gate accelerating on the gas pedal and never let up. After Kentucky was able to regain a tight 16-15 lead with 10:52 to go in the first half, Evansville held onto the lead until Nate Sestina’s free throw with 11:17 left in the game gave Kentucky a 47-46 lead. But, despite tying once and cutting the deficit to as little as one, UK never regained the lead for the remainder of the game.

Part of that deficit started with turnovers. UK only had 13 turnovers, but it was what came after the turnovers that haunted Kentucky. Evansville scored 14 points off of those turnovers, some via a couple of fast break plays, despite stripping the ball only twice.

A sore spot on the Cats’ ball handling may have been part of Ashton Hagans’ lackluster performance. Calipari told reporters after the game that Hagans, who only scored three points and didn’t score a field goal until the final 2:11, is “a little bit injured right now,” adding that his legs were bothering him and that he “hadn’t really practiced” throughout the week.

Calipari was right about getting outrebounded. The Purple Aces outrebounded Kentucky 38-35 overall and 11-8 on the offensive glass. Two of those boards would haunt Kentucky in the end. Evansville’s K.J Riley had an offensive board with 1:38 left in the game that helped give Evansville a 65-60 lead while Sam Cunliffe hauled a defensive board seconds later that killed a Cats’ scoring opportunity. Cats guard Immanuel Quickley had another career-high game in scoring with 16 points but agrees that he could’ve done more down low.

“I could’ve helped rebound a little better down the stretch, I think. We missed some key rebounds that we needed to get. Trying to play like that is hard every single game but I think you can always get more effort,” Quickley said.

Speaking of Cunliffe and Riley, they were an Achilles’ heel for Kentucky as the two led Evansville in scoring. Cunliffe, a junior transfer guard from the University of Kansas, dropped 17 points to go with two three-pointers. Meanwhile Riley had 18 points and shot 50 percent from field to go with a pair of treys. Overall, Evansville outshot UK form downtown 30% to 24%. Cats’ guard Tyrese Maxey tried to match that with a 15-point performance, but he admits he could have done more.

“They just outhustled us, and that can’t happen,” Maxey said.

McCarty’s defense kept UK forwards Nick Richards and Nate Sestina from having encore performances too. Richards, who went off for a double-double last week against EKU, only had six points and rebounds Tuesday night. While Sestina’s nine-point, five-rebound game eerily matched last week’s performance, the big man admits his energy levels just weren’t the same.

“Coach was right, we got out-toughed. I didn’t revert back to what we do in practice, standing straight up. It’s a mental thing for me. I just got to be mentally tough late in the game especially when I’m tired and I wasn’t,” Sestina said.

Tuesday night’s loss is a loss that won’t be forgotten by anyone from either team. However, if you ask Calipari, games like this are nothing new to him.

“I’ve done this 35 years and stuff like this happens. You want to grow from it, you want to learn from it,” Calipari said. “We may look back in a couple weeks and say, ‘This is the greatest thing that ever happened to this team.’ We also may look back in a couple weeks and say ‘What in the heck? They’re not changing.’”