MOON, Pa. — Kentucky took a punch early and was rattled from the beginning.
It was the same ending Kentucky experienced in its last outing, but this one concluded the team's season following a 59-57 loss to Robert Morris Tuesday night in the opening round of the National Invitational Tournament. Unlike the loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament last week in Nashville, Tenn., Kentucky fought back, only to come up short down the stretch.
Although not given the opportunity to defend their national title, the Wildcats got a second chance as the top seed in the NIT and failed to get past the first round against the upset-minded Colonials.
Kentucky freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said the loss wasn't because of a lack of effort and added the Wildcats failed to shove back after Robert Morris made it known they weren't going to back down from the defending national champions during the first five minutes.
“It wasn't like we weren't playing hard,” Cauley-Stein said. “They had a game plan and they executed it — to get up in us, speed us up and muscle us. The did that the first couple of minutes and they got up on us and it was like we played catch up from there.”
Robert Morris scored the first 10 points and even claimed a 13-point advantage with 8:59 remaining, but Kentucky regrouped and made a late run down the stretch.
“We had the game, but if we eliminate two more turnovers after we got up on them, but (couldn't stay composed),” he said. “It's been that way all season. When we see pressure, we use our athleticism and try to get past (traps) with that and try to use our strength, but half of us haven't figure that out yet.”
Kentucky rallied only to come up short against the Colonials, who got a boost from a fan base that stormed the court after the final buzzer after the hosts secured one of their biggest victories in school history.
“Their crowd was unbelievable,” Cauley-Stein said. “I give kudos to the crowd. That was by far craziest environment I have played in this year because they were so much closer to us. They had the whole side (of the court). In a bigger arena, it doesn't seem like there are that many (fans), but they packed it in and they were on top of us. It was very loud.”
Just as road losses at Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas and Georgia affected the Cats during the regular season, the team failed to tune out the noise playing in front of the smallest crowd of the season.
“You really didn't any attention to it unless there was a dead ball or coming out of a timeout,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was the environment that you have to learn to play in. It was a really good environment.”
Cauley-Stein was disappointed, but not surprised by the final outcome.
“We knew if we didn't come into this game and fight, we were going to lose,” Cauley-Stein said. “We didn't fight in the beginning and we put ourselves into hole and had to dig ourselves out. In the second half, we fought our butts off, but it wasn't enough.”
Cauley-Stein, who said he plans to return next season, said following last year's team proved to be a harder task than anticipated at the beginning of the season. Cauley-Stein said the team highlights included wins over Florida, Missouri and Ole Miss in the conference but added that losing in the opening round of the NIT doesn't sit well with the school's fan base. Kentucky lost four of its first five games to end the season.
“For us, we're bunch a rag-bag kids,” he said. “Me and Julius (Mays) were talking about that today. We're a bunch of random kids that got thrown into a situation. We won 21 games, beat three top-10 teams and all-in-all it was a good season if you look at it like that. On the outside looking in, you see Kentucky and all that hoopla, history and stuff like that, it's just not acceptable.”