Column: The moment was too big for Kentucky


Kentucky Wildcats guard Davion Mintz (10) lays on the ground during the UK vs. Saint Peter’s mens basketball game in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 17, 2022, at Gainbridge Arena in Indianapolis, Indiana. UK lost 85-79 in overtime. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Hunter Shelton

INDIANAPOLIS—Despite having his oldest team in his 13 years at Kentucky, John Calipari couldn’t prepare his team for Thursday night, no matter how hard he tried. 

“My whole thing coming in, because I knew they had never played in this stuff, was to get them free and loose, and we never got to that. Never,” he said. 

As the moment grew bigger and bigger, it became clearer and clearer that the No. 2 seeded Cats didn’t have the gusto needed to survive and advance. 

In the back of Calipari’s mind, even he knew his team was going to be on the ropes against the Peacocks. 

“Give Saint Peter’s credit. And I watched the tapes. Let me tell you, I was worried going into the game. I wasn’t showing anybody. I was whistling and skipping and dancing and ‘we can’t wait!”

Turns out that his worry was for good reason. In the run up to the tournament, Kentucky’s struggles had been masked by its injury issues and lack of identity on defense. 

Sure, Kellan Grady’s shooting had taken a steep decline, and TyTy Washington Jr hasn’t been the same player since his return from injury. The guards were getting cooked on the defensive end, Keion Brooks Jr went dark after his midseason stretch, and Bryce Hopkins and Lance Ware’s playing time was as sporadic as a solar eclipse. 

Yeah, those dang injuries sure will kick your rhythm. 

Calipari said his players were ‘locked in’ ahead of Thursday’s matchup. He must’ve meant that the team who boat raced Kansas by 18 points in Lawrence got locked in the team hotel and couldn’t get out for the rest of the season.

Instead, the March Madness version of Kentucky took one too many tail feathers to the face, unable to return fire. 

When the Peacocks punched back, the Cats got stunned. Instead of coaching his guys through adversity, all Calipari and his staff could do was encourage:  

“At one point with five minutes to go, one of the guys got on a guy and said, ‘Stop, there’s five minutes, just be positive. Just leave it alone. Just be positive,” he said. “So we were trying to help them get through it. Obviously didn’t do the kind of job we needed to.”

Any hopes that Calipari or Kentucky had of avoiding the Cinderella story were swiftly crushed by each Daryl Banks III and Doug Edert bucket. 

When the going got tough, UK crumbled. They always say that the first game is the hardest, they probably should’ve relayed that to the Wildcats.

“I wish I had some answers with three minutes to go to help them through it to get by the first one. But I tell you what, we missed shots, and Saint Peter’s made shots. They made threes. They made layups; we missed. They made free throws; we missed,” he said. “It’s one of those games that I was hoping I could get it by them to get them on to the next game to get their feet underneath them, and obviously I didn’t do a very good job with it.”  


Whether it’s due to Calipari’s failure to retap-in with his players, or the Cats inability to perform under the bright lights, Thursday night was too big of a moment for Kentucky basketball. 

All that experience, the unison, the love and passion that those players played with for one another, it just didn’t matter. 

When shots had to fall, they didn’t. As much as March Madness loves a good storyline, it loves good basketball even more. Saint Peter’s fell on the right side of both of those things inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Everyone waited for that signature UK run to make everything okay. they waited, and waited, then waited some more. The final buzzer hit for overtime and once again, they waited. 

It felt like the Wildcats were caught waiting for that moment too. 

“This was really disappointing, devastating. But this team brought a lot of joy to a lot of us. Just hate that it ends this way,” Calipari said.

Now, a quick, but painful drive back to Lexington will put to bed what has gone from a season filled with title hopes and dreams, to in the eyes of many, a disappointment.