LAHAINA, Hawaii — Hand-held green rope was used to create an alley for Washington and Kentucky to wade through on-lookers and take the floor.
It was hot. Little Lahaina Civic Center was hosting a big matchup, one with underlying emotions and menace. Every bit the feel of a pending fight vibrated the toy gym.
Kentucky is a natural to dislike for non-residents, with a perceived slick operator at the helm of a one-and-done program. Add the repeated winning and the turn-offs are easy to latch on to. Big Blue Nation, as they refer to themselves as, traveled thousands to Maui. Kentucky ring leader John Calipari estimated postgame that 30 percent of the Kentucky fans were actually from Kentucky. The rest, he claimed, were from around the country.
No way to measure. But Kentucky is a basketball school. However it happened, the Wildcats landed Terrence Jones and Washington did not. They are a consistent force on the national stage. Washington is not. Yet.
That was proven against on Tuesday night. The 13th-ranked Huskies were favored to beat eighth-ranked Kentucky and that scornful Jones. A chance for revenge, advancement, arrival, all in a night.
But Kentucky shoved Washington back into place with a 74-67 win. The Wildcats gutted it out, pounded it out. Scrapping, rebounding, those are bedrock in Lorenzo Romar’s program. Kentucky was able to shake that foundation.
“We didn’t take care of that tonight,” Washington co-captain Justin Holiday said.
Jones proved he could play strong when he wasn’t able to play pretty. The freshman finished 4-for-13 from the ferociously contested field. His 17 rebounds were 15 more than starting Washington center and detriment, on this night, Matthew Bryan-Amaning. He finished with more combined turnovers and fouls (10) than combined points and rebounds (9). A no-show.
Though he was present and accounted for when the game turned. Washington’s 6-2 lead was mashed into a 20-6 deficit less than five minutes later. The span was akin to the shockwaves from an earthquake off the coast during the game. The base of the day shook, the action becoming a pertinent postgame topic.
Bryan-Amaning made three turnovers during the defining run for Kentucky. He committed a foul, missed a layup and a poorly selected shot. By the time he was relieved by Aziz N’Diaye, Kentucky’s lead reached its zenith, 14 points.
“That gave us the gap that we needed, so that when we had foul trouble, it was a one-point game instead of down 12,” Calipari said. “And Washington is one of those teams, that if you’re down 12, that rim is like this big and they start shooting 3s, and all of a sudden you’re down 25 before you can turn around.
“I was just happy we were in the game at halftime.”
Unable to trample Kentucky on the break, Washington was exposed in the halfcourt. Hearken back to Tony Bennett’s desires from the night before. Find a way to make Washington face a set defense, keep them off the glass.
Kentucky did both. It outrebounded Washington by 10 on the night. In the second half, Washington’s assist-to-turnover ratio plummeted from 1:1 to 2:7.
“My biggest fear is that we had played three ballgames where rarely did we go deep into the shot clock to guard or offensively to keep the basketball,” Romar said. “My biggest fear when that happened is that we wouldn’t be able to adjust quick enough.”
Lumbering Kentucky center Josh Harrellson collected weakside rebounds when his man left to help. There was no rotating down by Washington from the wing. The system broke apart on both ends.
For all the high-end facilities and preposterous entourage in tow with the Kentucky Show, the young Wildcats won the game with work and discipline. Those were supposed to be Washington staples.
“Against a team like Kentucky and a team that we’re going to play tomorrow, you’re going to find all your weaknesses,” Romar said.
Another win for Kentucky over Washington, the second big one since last season ended. The Huskies’ consolation prize? Second-ranked and grumpy Michigan State, an unlikely loser to Connecticut in the other semifinal.
Washington came to Maui hoping to mark it’s territory on the national basketball map. It’s still just off the mainland.