Cats bow out in NIT; Cal promises changes

RMU's Lucky Jones

Kentucky's derailed defense of its national championship came to a fitting end Tuesday in a 3,000-seat gym at Robert Morris University as the host Colonials held on for a 59-57 upset of the top-seeded but mildly-inspired Wildcats in the opening round of the National Invitational Tournament.

MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. – Kentucky's derailed defense of its national championship came to a fitting end Tuesday in a 3,000-seat gym at Robert Morris University as the host Colonials held on for a 59-57 upset of the top-seeded but mildly-inspired Wildcats in the opening round of the National Invitational Tournament.

Robert Morris scored the game's first 10 points and led almost the entire way before a dramatic finish. Kentucky battled back with an 11-0 run to tie the game with 3:07 remaining, but the Colonials came up with clutch plays down the stretch to secure one of the most memorable wins in program history.

Mike McFadden grabbed an offensive rebound and hit two free throws with eight seconds left to reclaim the lead for Robert Morris. Kentucky's Kyle Wiltjer attempted a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, but the shot bounced long off the back of the rim as the RMU student section stormed the court in celebration.

Lucky Jones scored 15 points to lead Robert Morris (24-10) before he was ejected for a flagrant foul late in the game that momentarily seemed to energize the lifeless Cats. Russell Johnson added 14 points, five rebounds and three steals for the Colonials, who will advance to play the winner of Wednesday's Charlotte-Providence game.

"This is a shot in the arm for them, and they deserve to win the game," UK head coach John Calipari said. "If we'd have won at the buzzer, it would have been a shame."

Kentucky's tumultuous season ended at 21-12 and with Calipari promising major changes moving forward.

"What I can tell our fans, I thought there were a couple (players) who wanted to end this, and I didn't play them much," he said. "I'm proud of how we fought to get back in the game, but we shouldn't be in this position."

Kentucky closed the 2012-13 campaign losing six of its last 10 games since Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12 at Florida. The Cats lost four of their last five, dropping all of the games away from Rupp Arena.

Calipari said opponents sized UK up as "soft" since losing the intimidating shot-blocking presence of the 6-foot-10 Noel in the middle of its defense.

"As soon as we lost our toughness with Nerlens, it was hard," he said. "We were trying to get this thing back on track, but when you lose your best player, it's difficult."

The opening of the UK-RMU game proved that. The reigning champs were blitzed by their Northeast Conference opponent, forcing Calipari to call a timeout only two and a half minutes into play.

"They look at us and say, ‘They're soft. Go right up in ‘em and be tough and hard, and they'll go away.'" Calipari said. "Guess what? We did. I had to call timeout right from the start. It's been like that all year."

Kentucky's formula of signing the nation's No. 1 recruiting class and making a deep NCAA tournament run did not materialize this season, partly due to the lack of upper-class leadership and depth. Calipari promised fans Tuesday night he would never get caught short-handed again.

"With what we have coming in, we're going to be fine. And I'm jacked," said Calipari, who has his fifth-consecutive No. 1 class lined up for 2013 and could get more good news on Wednesday as five-star Texas power forward Julius Randle is set to announce his commitment to either UK or Kansas. "I think what will happen with this class," Calipari continued, "it's going to be kind of big. That's just the way it is."

That could mean some current UK players being encouraged to continue their careers elsewhere.

"We'll have individual meetings (with the current players) and I'm going to be honest," Calipari said. "I'm not going to do it yet because I don't want it to be a burst, emotional, but I'm going to be flat honest. We've got a lot of guys coming in who are going to play a lot of minutes, and it's going to be hard.

"The competition brings out the best and the worst. In this program, it's always brought out the best. We didn't have enough of it this year, which meant we had to surrender to certain guys to how they wanted to play."

Freshman guard Archie Goodwin scored a game-high 18 points to lead Kentucky in the finale, but the Cats got little productivity from the rest of their ballyhooed class of signees. Alex Poythress scored six points and grabbed two rebounds in 27 minutes of action. Willie Cauley-Stein had nine points and four rebounds in 26 minutes.

But it was sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow, who had only five points and no assists before being benched for the second half in favor of walk-on Jarrod Polson, who may have best personified the end of UK's season.

"The biggest lesson I learned is there's got to be competition," Calipari said. "We've got to have more players. You can't do it like this, and then you get hijacked by a player or two. You get hijacked because you think you have to play them, you don't have a choice. And then you accept what they want to give you and surrender the program. That will never happen here. We're always going to have a full complement of players. Next year, we may have as many as three teams, 15 guys, so here we go."

Polson scored 10 points and dished out three assists in a career-high 31 minutes of action.

"Played the whole game well. Played tough, strong," Calipari said of the junior from Nicholasville, Ky. "And that's not Jarrod's role. It's not supposed to be."

NOTES:

• Kentucky dropped to 13-7 all-time in NIT games. RMU evened the all-time series against UK at 1-1.

• UK finished 2-11 this season when trailing at halftime. The Wildcats faced a 28-27 deficit at the break.

• Senior guard Julius Mays ended his collegiate career with five points against RMU, falling just one shy of 1,000 career points at UK and Wright State.

• Goodwin's 466 points this season marked the sixth-highest total by a UK freshman in school history.

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