"They made the plays they needed to make, "said associate coach David Hobbs, "we made some great plays, too, and gave it an outstanding effort, but they made more plays than they did."
Freshman Randolph Morris led the Wildcats with a career-high 20 points and senior Chuck Hayes, playing in his final game as a Wildcat, added 16 for the Cats, who finished the season an impressive 28-6, with a regular-season SEC Championship and an Elite Eight NCAA Tournament appearance under their belts.
"This loss today was disappointing," Hobbs said, "but this is a young team that really accomplished a lot. It's a young team and we'll be back strong next year."
Kentucky was impressive early, overcoming a 23-16 deficit in the first half with an 11-0 run behind the play of freshman Joe Crawford, Patrick Sparks, Sheray Thomas and Chuck Hayes. The Wildcats would enter the locker room at halftime with a 37-33 advantage.
In the second half the Spartans found their shooting touch, blistering the nets from the outside. Shannon Brown hit a three pointer to give MSU its first lead of the second half at 40-39. Hayes would hit a bucket at the 14:30 mark to give UK its last lead of the half at 50-48. From there Michigan State shot the lights out, building the lead up to eight points at 70-62 with under six minutes to play.
But the game Wildcats would not give up. With the Spartans holding a 72-66 lead with under three minutes to go, the Cats found their touch. Ravi Moss would hit a three pointer to draw the Cats to within three. After a Paul Davis free throw, Kelenna Azubuike would hit a three pointer and the Cats would be within one at 73-72 with one minute remaining. It was then that a heart-stopping drama would unfold, a drama that Wildcat fans will remember for years.
Shannon Brown would miss a free throw and the rebound would go to Ravi Moss, who would throw a long outlet pass to Ramel Bradley at midcourt. Bradley leaped high to receive the pass. He and Alan Anderson would collide and Bradley went to the floor with a thud. A foul was called on Anderson. Patrick Sparks was brought in to replace the injured Bradley. Sparks, the steadiest of Kentucky free throw shooters, would be shooting free throws that would have put Kentucky in the lead. But Sparks missed the front end of the one and one and Brown would be fouled at the other end, hitting both free throws and providing MSU a three point cushion with under 20 seconds to play.
With time running down Sparks missed a three point shot. Azubuike would rebound, take ball out and shoot an off-balanced three, which rimmed out to Sparks at the top of the three point line. Patrick shot a final desperation three as the horn sounded. As if in slow motion, the ball bounced several times around the rim before falling through the bucket to send the game into overtime.
Kentucky had its best opportunities to win the game in overtime number one, when Randolph Morris hit the opening bucket and Azubuike added two free throws to give UK a four point margin at 79-75 at the 4:06 mark. Michigan State seemed out of sync, making a number of mental errors, but fought their way back into the game. With the game deadlocked at 81, Kentucky had the final possession of the overtime but inexplicably could not get a shot off before the buzzer. And the game went into overtime number two where the Cats fell behind quickly and could not recover.
"Rajon Rondo was supposed to flatten the defense out," Hobbs said, "Rondo is very difficult to guard one on one. He was supposed to penetrate and make the decision to shoot, draw a foul or kick it out. The play did not unfold quite like we thought and by the time he kicked it out to Kelenna he was covered pretty well. I am not sure whether he was aware that the clock had run down as far as it was."
"As you can imagine, the attitude is pretty somber in the locker room after the game," Hobbs said, "but this team had a good run. We are all very proud of the team."
For senior Chuck Hayes, the end was understandably very disappointing, "It was a great game," Hayes said, "sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't. You put in all the hard work and you look for the results you want. We put in a lot of work in the regular season and in the post season, but it comes down to sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't."
The Cats didn't get it today and it lost more than the game. They lost their most valued player in Chuck Hayes. Filling his shoes will be a daunting task for Tubby Smith. Hayes will be remembered as one of the most popular Wildcats to ever lace up his shoes for the Wildcats.
Thank you for the memories, Chuck.