Kentucky ends worst season of Calipari era with abysmal SEC tournament effort

So much for Kentucky salvaging a miserable season in the SEC tournament.

The underachieving Wildcats are leaving Nashville without even winning a game.

The most disappointing season of John Calipari’s coaching career ended Thursday afternoon with a whimper of a 74-73 loss to middling Mississippi State. Dontaie Allen missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, dooming the Wildcats to finish the season with a dismal 9-16 record.

Kentucky spoke of trying to redeem itself by winning four games in four days to claim an NCAA tournament bid, but the Wildcats didn’t look ready in the first half when it was time to back up that talk. At one end of the floor, ninth-seeded Mississippi State bullied Kentucky in the paint. At the other, the eighth-seeded Wildcats missed point-blank scoring opportunities and struggled to respond.

Mississippi State’s lead swelled to as many as 15 points early in the second half before Allen jarred Kentucky awake and led a second-half rally. The sharpshooter who torched the Bulldogs for seven 3-pointers in early January burnt Ben Howland’s team again on Thursday, erupting for 20 of his 23 points after halftime.

Kentucky coach John Calipari watches his team during the first half on Sat., March 6, 2021. (AP)Kentucky coach John Calipari watches his team during the first half on Sat., March 6, 2021. (AP)

Kentucky coach John Calipari watches his team during the first half on Sat., March 6, 2021. (AP)

It was Allen who gave Kentucky its first second-half lead on a 3-pointer with six minutes to play. The Wildcats built that lead to as many as five on another 3-pointer from Davion Mintz just under two minutes later.

But just as quickly as Kentucky stormed back, it wilted again. Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar sank back-to-back threes of his own and then hit the game-tying and go-ahead free throws with 7.1 seconds to play.

Kentucky’s loss was a fitting conclusion to a season that underwhelmed from the outset.

With six of Top 50 freshmen joining a roster that also featured returner Keion Brooks and coveted transfers Jacob Toppin and Olivier Sarr, Kentucky began in the preseason Top 10 just like usual. Then the cold-shooting, turnover-prone Wildcats fell to Richmond. And Kansas. And Georgia Tech. And Notre Dame.

By the time the Wildcats finished non-conference play 1-6, it was clear this wasn’t a typical Calipari team. Only once before in Calipari’s tenure has Kentucky failed to make the NCAA tournament or win at least 25 games.

Kentucky fought hard enough in SEC play to notch wins over LSU, Florida and Tennessee, but the Wildcats never scored easily enough to make a real run at the NCAA tournament bubble. For weeks, they’ve pointed to the SEC tournament as their chance at redemption.

That’s what makes Thursday’s loss disappointing yet predictable.

The Wildcats showed everyone what they were for months. In March, with their season hanging in the balance, they weren’t any different.

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