The art of closing out road games…and Kentucky’s failure to master it


Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari coaches his team from the sideline during the UK vs. Duke men’s basketball game as part of the State Farm Champions Classic on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. Duke won 79-71. Photo by Jack Weaver | Staff

Cole Parke

Closing out games in a hostile environment can be described as an art form in college basketball. So far this season, it is one that Kentucky has failed to master.

The Wildcats got their first true-road win of the season on Tuesday, Jan. 11, at Vanderbilt to improve to 1-2 in road games, despite the Commodores not allowing students to attend the event, negating the ‘sixth man’ in the form of a student section, while blue and white outnumbered back and gold inside Memorial Gymnasium.

What happened in the closing minutes of Kentucky’s win provided a bigger red flag that would leave a sour taste in the mouths of Big Blue Nation.

The Cats boasted a 28-point lead with six minutes left to play, and based on precedent, it appeared as though it would end up as another 30-plus point victory for Kentucky. The Commodores had other ideas.

UK head coach John Calipari decided to pull his starting rotation to allow for bench development, but instead it allowed Vanderbilt to go on a 9-0 run mostly thanks to Scotty Pippen Jr. Calipari attempted to negate the damage by putting his starting rotation back on the court, but this proved futile as the Commodores continued their run, finishing the game having out-scored Kentucky 16-0 since the starters were pulled. 

What was once a 28-point lead with promise to be a 30-plus point blowout, turned into an unspectacular 12-point win to escape with a road victory.

“We let go of the rope,” Calipari said after the win. “I subbed guys out because I’m not leaving guys in there [if they can’t handle it], but the starters didn’t do much better. It’s something that we’ve got to get better at.”

While one could write off this game as a fluke under normal circumstances, this is not the first late-game collapse by Kentucky on the road this season. In fact, it appears to be par for the course for the Wildcats.

The Cats played their first true-road game of the season on Dec. 11, traveling up north to battle the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. While the Irish have gone on to hold a 10-6 record, they were a meager 3-4 entering the game against Kentucky, leading many to write them off as an easy victory for a Kentucky team who had handily beaten everyone it had played with the exception of Duke in the Champions Classic.

What transpired instead was a shocking upset by Notre Dame, knocking off then No. 10 Kentucky 66-62.

The loss was mostly credited to Kentucky’s 3-point shooting percentage, with the Cats going just 2-19 from beyond the arch.

While this certainly played a big role, Kentucky did themselves no favors in the closing minutes of play. The Cats last basket came with 1:50 to play, when Davidson transfer Kellan Grady made a 3-point jumper to give UK a one-point lead.

What followed was less than stellar, as Keion Brooks Jr fouled on defense, sending Dane Goodwin to the free throw line. Luckily for Kentucky, Goodwin went 1-2 merely tying the game rather than taking the lead. 

Brooks grabbed the rebound and got it to Grady, who once again attempted a deep shot, but unlike the prior one, missed, allowing the Irish to regain possession.

Kentucky would recover the ball and call a timeout, but would go on to miss two layups on consecutive possessions, and were finally put down with a dunk in the final seconds.

“We lost because of defensive discipline in the last eight minutes of the game,” Calipari said after the loss. “[We gave them] nine points in the last minutes and when you’re shooting 2-19 [from three] you can’t do that. Let’s hope it’s a fluke.”

Kentucky wouldn’t go on the road again until Jan. 4, when the Cats traveled down to Baton Rouge to play then No. 21 LSU. While the Tigers posed a tough test away from home for the Wildcats, the game was still within their grasp until the final minutes. 

The final minute of the SEC matchup showcased some chaotic and sloppy play. The Tigers turned over the ball, allowing Davion Mintz to score on a layup to get Kentucky within one point with under 30 seconds left to play. 

Mintz fouled the Tigers, leading to an in-bound pass that was overthrown, resulting in an Oscar Tshiebwe steal. While fortune looked to favor Kentucky, Tshiebwe overthrew the ball on his subsequent pass attempt which had to be saved from going out of bounds, culminating in LSU stealing the ball and slamming it down for a dunk.

Kentucky was still within three points, however in his haste to set up the shot, Mintz had the ball ripped, falling to LSU’s Mwani Wilkinson, who passed down court for a spinning dunk by Xavier Pinson, officially putting the dagger in Kentucky’s hopes of winning.

The Cats would attempt a 3-point jumper with two seconds left, but it was blocked and then fell short on the second attempt.

Calipari would talk about how Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington’s absence, after Wheeler left early being injured on a screen and Washington left with cramps, impacted the team and was partially to blame for the poor performance in the final minutes.

“Sahvir is the engine that gets us all moving,” Calipari said. “When he went down [it hurt us]. I was going play-to-play just trying to get a [win], when normally I just let him go and he’ll decide. Then when TyTy went down it’s a totally different ballgame there too. [After that] we were just trying to get it up the court.”

Though it’s hard to deny Kentucky fared well given the circumstances at LSU, it was yet another display of Kentucky’s struggle to close out games on the road.

While the Cats are no longer winless on the road, they’ve yet to finish strong in hostile environments, and with Kentucky only having played one team in a true road game that has even received a single AP vote, it’s a very real concern heading into the bulk of their SEC schedule.

Kentucky’s next road game will be on Wednesday, Jan. 19, against Texas A&M, immediately followed by a ranked matchup at now No. 2 Auburn on Jan. 22. With Auburn having a legitimate case to be the number one team in the country, the Wildcats will likely be forced to play their best for all 40 minutes if they wish to escape with a win.

Kentucky’s game against Texas A&M is scheduled to tip-off at 8:30 p.m. E.T. and is set to air on the SEC Network.