What to make of Kentucky’s stunning loss to UNC Wilmington? ‘We got stuff to learn.’

The stage was set for a day of celebration in Rupp Arena on Saturday.

A brand new court in the home of Kentucky basketball. The long-awaited debut of Aaron Bradshaw, a much-ballyhooed recruit who some skeptics said would never play for the Wildcats. The first college start for Reed Sheppard, the homegrown kid and instant All-American — in the estimation of many UK fans, at least — was to be a ceremonious occasion just four days after Big Blue Nation had bought into these Wildcats completely.

Just one problem. There was still a basketball game to be played.

And, on this day, UNC Wilmington played it better than Kentucky.

The Seahawks upset the No. 12-ranked Wildcats 80-73 in Rupp Arena on Saturday, a shocking defeat for a UK team that had run No. 8 Miami out of the gym with a 22-point laugher earlier in the week.

And this loss wasn’t the result of some fluke or a flurry of 3-pointers. UNC Wilmington simply beat Kentucky on the court. Fair and square.

“They deserved to win the game. They did,” said UK coach John Calipari afterward. “I would like to have tried to steal the game from ’em. But they deserved to win it.”

No one would’ve thought such a thing before tipoff.

Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky team was held to a season-low 73 points during UNC Wilmington’s upset of the 12th-ranked Wildcats on their home court Saturday.
Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky team was held to a season-low 73 points during UNC Wilmington’s upset of the 12th-ranked Wildcats on their home court Saturday.

Kentucky looked like world-beaters Tuesday night against Miami, utilizing an offensive explosion to send the previously unbeaten Hurricanes home with a 95-73 loss that was every bit as lopsided as that score would suggest.

UNC Wilmington came into the weekend rated by KenPom as the nation’s 145th-best team, less than 48 hours removed from a loss to East Carolina that left little time to prepare for the Cats.

Kentucky was an 18.5-point favorite before tipoff. The Rupp Arena crew worked into the wee hours to put down the team’s first new court in 22 years — a playing surface that had been greeted with rave reviews by the fanbase. The buzz had been growing that Bradshaw — arguably the player with the highest ceiling in all of college basketball — was going to make his first appearance for the Cats, and it became clear as the day wore on that he would do just that.

UK announced before the game that starting point guard D.J. Wagner would be out due to an ankle injury suffered in the win over Miami, leaving Sheppard — Kentucky’s reigning Mr. Basketball — the logical choice to start in his place. He did.

The 19-year-old was introduced in the first five, Rupp Arena popped accordingly, a deafening ovation for the undisputed fan favorite. The two teams gathered at center court — that wood grain outline of the state of Kentucky beneath their feet — and Kentucky won the tip.

The first shot belonged to Sheppard. A 3-pointer. Everything was going according to plan.

He let loose of the ball, Wagner — sitting on the UK bench — held up three fingers as soon as it left his teammate’s hands. He (and everyone else) waited for the ball to go through the net. It didn’t.

Kentucky missed its first two shots. UNC Wilmington made its first two to take a 5-0 lead, surely just postponing the inevitable. The Seahawks extended that lead to nine points with 15:01 left in the half. Calipari called timeout. He then called Bradshaw’s number. The crowd popped again.

After a turnover on his first college possession and a 3-pointer from teammate Tre Mitchell on the second, Bradshaw took an entry pass, turned to the rim and dunked down eight months of frustration — pumping his fists in celebration before his feet even returned to the Rupp Arena court.

The crowd went wild once more. Surely this was when the Wildcats would roar back, right?

Wrong.

UK trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, needing a late run to go into the halftime locker room down 41-33. The Cats needed less than five minutes out of the break to take the lead for the first time. That go-ahead shot came on a 3-pointer from Sheppard, who brought the Kentucky crowd to its feet yet again. Surely that would be the end of it.

UNC Wilmington went on a 13-1 run from there and never trailed again. Kentucky was never closer than five points in the final 90 seconds of the game.

“They hit us with some haymakers,” said UNCW coach Takayo Siddle. “We responded with our own haymakers. And we finished the game off like veterans.”

Siddle already knew this building. He was a backup guard — and played 28 minutes — on the Gardner-Webb team that came into Rupp on Nov. 7, 2007, and handed the Cats a stunning 84-68 loss in Billy Gillispie’s second game as head coach.

How much did he talk to his Seahawks about that night in the leadup to this one?

“I mentioned it briefly,” Siddle said amid some chuckles.

The player seated to his right, Trazarien White, had just dropped 27 points off the bench. He scored 18 of those in the second half. White offered up an amused look that suggested his head coach had spoken more than “briefly” about that upset from 16 years ago.

“My message was: ‘Believe. And anything can happen.’ Little ol’ Gardner-Webb came in here back in 2007, and we had the same outcome,” Siddle continued. “… I think they understood the message I was trying to get across to them. And we came in here and we believed that we could win the game. We know how talented, how good we are as a ball club. And our guys did a tremendous job executing.”

That Gardner-Webb loss set the tone for that Kentucky season and the one that followed. Gillispie was out after year two. Calipari was in, bringing with him those one-and-done freshmen that changed the course of UK’s program and set its own tone for the future.

That first Kentucky team didn’t have many hiccups on the court. But most of Calipari’s other freshman-heavy teams have, including some really good ones.

There’ll be days like this, he said, reminding everyone after that it’s (almost) always a process when coaching a team filled with young guys, no matter how talented they are.

The UK team that showed up Saturday afternoon looked nothing like the one that left Rupp rocking four nights earlier.

“We had more turnovers than they did,” Calipari said. “We had eight at halftime. Or nine. Whatever it was.”

Kentucky’s Adou Thiero (3) dove for a loose ball during Saturday’s loss. Thiero finished with seven points and six rebounds.
Kentucky’s Adou Thiero (3) dove for a loose ball during Saturday’s loss. Thiero finished with seven points and six rebounds.

It was nine. The Cats were averaging just 8.1 per game coming into the night.

UK was also averaging 11.9 made 3-pointers per game and shooting 42.6% from deep. In this one, the Cats were 5-for-17 from long range.

“We had to get 3s where I had to run a play to get a 3,” Calipari said. “That’s not who we are.”

To this point, UK’s identity had been all about sharing the ball, keeping it moving, making that one last pass to get that best possible shot. It was often a wide-open one from long range. Not on this night.

“We came into this game a little selfish, I think,” said sophomore Adou Thiero. “The first half, we weren’t really swinging the ball to each other as much as we usually do. We didn’t get the same amount of assists as we usually do. Guys were trying to do things on our own. We were just out of it.”

The Cats averaged 21 assists per game before Saturday, when they had only 14.

“We were selfish with the ball. And we weren’t playing together,” said Mitchell, the fifth-year college vet. “And you see what type of night we’re gonna have when we don’t play together.”

Calipari made clear that the miscues didn’t all come on the offense. Not even close. Kentucky’s coach hammered home the point that UK’s players were constantly beat off the dribble, leading to easy UNCW buckets, as well as some and-one opportunities.

“We got stuff to learn,” Calipari concluded.

One thing that was clear is how much the Cats miss Wagner, especially when he’s on, as he had been going into that Miami game. The 18-year-old averaged 25.0 points, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game in wins over Saint Joseph’s and Marshall, earning SEC freshman of the week honors.

Mitchell said Wagner provides a spark on both ends of the court, a playmaker other teams have to account for and a defender that brings an edge, even if he does occasionally get beat on the perimeter. The 18-year-old freshman also has a competitive spirit that’s contagious.

“I felt like we were very dead tonight, from an energy standpoint,” Mitchell said on that topic.

Sheppard led the Cats in all the major categories — 25 points, nine rebounds and six assists — but he, too, noted the importance of Wagner’s absence.

“We missed him, but that can’t be an excuse,” Sheppard said. “We still have a lot of really good players on the team, and we have to come out and keep playing together as a team. And we’ll learn from this. And we’ll grow and be better because of this.”

Mitchell, who has assumed the role of veteran leader, agreed. His message to the young guys?

“It’s to take a step back from everything and realize that we’re human,” he said. “We’re not gonna be perfect. We’re gonna have nights like tonight. And it’s whether or not we can have the maturity level to not get super down on ourselves.”

He made it clear he thinks this is merely a bump in the road.

Kentucky now has a week with no games before a trip to Philadelphia to play Penn on Saturday.

The practices over the next several days are likely to be spirited.

“I feel bad for whoever we got next. Short and sweet,” Mitchell said. “These dudes are not gonna take this lightly. I think that whoever we got next better come with everything they got. Because these dudes feel like they got something to make up for. Simple as that.”

Next game

No. 12 Kentucky vs. Penn

When: Saturday, Dec. 9 at noon

TV: ESPN2

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 6-2, Penn 5-4

Series: Kentucky leads 5-0

Last meeting: Kentucky won 86-62 on Jan. 3, 2011, in Lexington

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