MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — At least Kentucky Coach John Calipari could wash down this season’s last piece of humble pie with his hometown brew: Iron City.
That was about the only plus Tuesday night as Robert Morris beat UK 59-57 in the National Invitation Tournament first round.
After a 13-point lead disappeared inside the final nine minutes, Robert Morris won it in the final 10 seconds.
The Colonials’ Mike McFadden made two free throws with 8.7 seconds left to win it.
Kentucky, which led for only 29 seconds in the game, lost when Kyle Wiltjer missed an open three-pointer in the final seconds.
Wiltjer’s miss set off a stampede by Robert Morris students onto the court at the Charles L. Sewall Center (affectionately known as “The Chuck”). Kentucky, which finished the season with a 21-12 record, failed to win a game away from Rupp Arena after Feb. 2.
Jarrod Polson, who bookended the season with big performances in the opener against Maryland and then here Tuesday night, and Archie Goodwin led an improbable UK rally.
The Cats trailed 49-36 with 8:51 left. Each scored two baskets down the stretch with Goodwin’s driving shot making it 57-57 with 42.5 seconds left.
After a Robert Morris timeout with 12.3 seconds remaining (and five on the shot clock), the Colonials got Russell Johnson free for a layup off an inbounds pass. He missed, but Willie Cauley-Stein fouled McFadden on the put-back attempt.
A 28-27 halftime deficit represented a triumph for Kentucky.
Robert Morris scored the game’s first 10 points and held the initiative for much of the half. Yet UK trailed only by a point at intermission.
While UK had a 2-10 record when trailing at halftime earlier this season, the deficit didn’t seem so bad.
The Cats got off to a horrendous start, committing four turnovers in their first six trips downcourt.
If not for Polson (not a phrase contemplated before this season), Kentucky might have fallen hopelessly behind. But Polson got on the scoreboard at the 15:15 mark with a jumper from the left baseline.
Better still, Polson gave UK steady point guard play on another miserable night for starter Ryan Harrow. Calipari benched Harrow with 10:46 left in the half. Before taking Harrow out, the UK coach got his attention and then hung his head in an exaggerated fashion. Harrow had done likewise a moment earlier after biting on a shot fake and committing a foul.
Kentucky needed plenty of resolve.
Robert Morris’ 13 first-half fouls helped Kentucky. The Colonials came into the game ranked No. 281 in the nation in fouls committed. Goodwin helped the Cats take advantage by making six of six in the half. He had made only 15 of 32 in the previous four games.
Harrow did not start the second half, and did not get off the bench until the first television timeout with 15:32 left.
Shelving his driving-to-the-basket game after an early charge, Goodwin kept Kentucky afloat with a pair of pull-up jumpers.
But Velton Jones scored three times against Polson to keep Robert Morris ahead.
Other than Goodwin’s two pull-ups, Kentucky did not make a basket until the 11:32 mark of the second half. By then, Robert Morris had rebuilt a 10-point lead.
Moments later, a sequence seemed to serve as a fitting punctuation to the finale of a frustrating Kentucky season. After Polson’s lob proved too hot for Cauley-Stein to handle, Robert Morris swished a three-pointer from the left corner. The UK deficit grew to 49-36.
Then Kentucky rallied. Two floaters by Polson began a 13-4 run that brought the Cats within 53-49.
A shudder surely went through the crowd with 3:41 left. After a turnover, Robert Morris’ Lucky Jones fouled Goodwin from behind to prevent a breakaway layup. The intentional foul included an ejection. Gone went the Colonials’ leading scorer to that point (15 points).
Goodwin’s two free throws got UK within two. Then his put-back tied it at 53-53 with 3:15 left to set up the final dramatics.
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