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March 11, 2012

Cats hope loss provides NCAA Tournament spark

NEW ORLEANS - John Calipari wasn't pleased.

His Kentucky basketball team had just seen its 24-game winning streak snapped in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game, had fallen to Vanderbilt 71-64 in its first loss since Dec. 10, and Calipari wasn't happy.

It wasn't so much the loss that irked Calipari. It was the timing.

"I wish this would have happened yesterday so we got home a day earlier," Calipari said.

Calipari had opened his news conference by heaping praise on Vanderbilt (24-10), which closed the game on a 16-2 run and harassed Kentucky (32-2) into missing its last 13 shots over the final eight minutes.

The Wildcats led 62-55 with 5:23 to play.

"That game was over and then all of a sudden it's like, basket, basket, basket (and) it's anybody's ball game," Calipari said. "And they played down the stretch well. Hats off to them."

But Calipari saw blame to go around for his team. The way he sees it, the Wildcats have tiptoed across the line lately that divides swagger from arrogance.

"My comment to them after (was), 'Maybe I'll have your attention now and you're really going to focus in and listen to what I'm saying, how we're going to have to play these next few weekends," Calipari said.

Kentucky hadn't stumbled down the stretch. It dominated the final week of the regular season to finish 16-0 in SEC play. But the Cats had been pushed in the first two games of this SEC Tournament. There were signs Calipari saw as alarming.

"He keeps telling us, 'Don't come out arrogant. Play with a swagger, but don't be arrogant,'" point guard Marquis Teague said. "We came into the game thinking we would just win, and that didn't happen today."

The Cats had their chances. A five-point lead late in the first half had the makings of a knockout punch, but Vanderbilt - as it did all afternoon - found an answer and tied the game at 37-37 heading into halftime.

"The only thing I was disappointed (with), at halftime, I thought we should have been up about 10," Calipari said. "And what I told them (was), 'There you go again, and you give a team a chance to think that they got hope.' And then we get up again late in the game."

But the Cats couldn't get shots to drop as Vanderbilt pulled away. Calipari wanted more post touches for Anthony Davis (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Terrence Jones (12 points, 11 rebounds), but for the most part, Kentucky had open looks in the closing minutes.

Darius Miller led UK with 16 points. His dunk at the 8:01 mark of the second half was UK's last field goal.

"We were making the same plays we always make, getting the ball to the people that needed it where they needed it," Teague said. "The shots just weren't falling today."

Vanderbilt kept making big ones, including Kedren Johnson's layup-and-free-throw three-point play with 1:30 to play that gave the Commodores the lead for good, 65-62.

As a result, Calipari's team took a loss he almost seemed to crave.

"He said he was happy that we lost," Davis said. "We needed it. I'm not sure what he's thinking."

Davis conceded that a loss might refocus UK, that the Wildcats might benefit from feeling the sting of defeat for the first time since Christian Watford sank a buzzer-beater to lift Indiana to a 73-72 win three months ago.

But Davis didn't want to take a loss.

"To lose here, especially in a championship when we were this close to winning it all, it just hurts," Davis said. "So I hope we take this loss, learn from it and have this as motivation going into the NCAA Tournament."

The Wildcats are expected to open NCAA Tournament play Thursday in Louisville as the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

Kentucky is the Las Vegas favorite to win it all, and cutting down the nets across the street at the Superdome is Calipari's focus. Minutes after the Vanderbilt loss, he described himself as "fine."

"We get this off our plate," Calipari said. "We don't have to worry about a win streak, none of that. Let's just go play this tournament."


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