Sunday February 21st, 2016

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Isaac Humphries apologized on the floor, almost as soon as the ball left his hand. “I’m sorry,” the Kentucky freshman said to the teammates circling around him. And he kept apologizing, long after a celebration of a game about to be won turned into something else entirely. He apologized all the way into the locker room, where he and his exasperated team sat and contemplated one of the strangest technical fouls they’ll ever see and one of the most wrenching endings they could imagine.

At just about the same time, Tyler Davis walked through a Reed Arena tunnel, through some chest bumps from well-wishers, away from the madness of a crowd that was swaying and singing arm-in-arm in delight. “T, T, T, T,” Tonny Trocha-Morelos called from behind, more or less dancing toward the Texas A&M freshman who saved the day. Trocha-Morelos grabbed Davis’s hand, the same one that flicked in the winning putback as overtime expired Saturday, and pulled Davis in for a hug. Then they, too, walked away arm-in-arm, smiling and laughing.

“You wait for that one thing to happen,” John Calipari said, “and boom, the game changes.”

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It took far more than one thing happening to bring us to Texas A&M 79, Kentucky 77 in overtime on Saturday. It took a couple of Wildcat guards once again imposing themselves and dang near delivering a win despite one calamity after another, as if they played with heavy rocks falling around them all night. It took the Aggies pounding away on the backboards just to stay in it, after they’d received pregame instructions from Super Bowl MVP Von Miller on how to find championship-level toughness. It took a lot to get to the point where both teams hardly had anything left but nevertheless left relatively pleased: Texas A&M, because it had the victory it needed as it builds a contender. And Kentucky, because it did everything it needed to do, and felt there was nothing to apologize for.

But the one thing did happen.

Humphries, the 7-foot Australian freshman, did grab a rebound to close out a late defensive stand. And he did get fouled, giving him the chance to stretch that lead at the free-throw line at the other end. And he did start to pound the ball to the deck in celebration. And that ball did bounce hard away from him. And the officials did go by the book and assess a technical foul on Humphries, with 9.4 seconds left in a one-point game in overtime. And that did serve as Humphries’s disqualifying fifth foul. And that did give Texas A&M two free throws, which Danuel House hit to turn what might otherwise have been a three-point deficit into a one-point lead.

And that one thing did blow everyone’s minds, in just about every sense.

“[Humphries] was a big reason were in it at the end, rebounding the ball and blocking shots,” Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis said. “When he got the ball, we were just so excited. He was excited as well. Started to throw it and it came out of his hand. He was saying sorry and stuff, but he really had nothing to be sorry about.”

Said Calipari: “The play at the end there, that kind of sullied up the game ... He was celebrating. He was so happy. There was no disrespect to anybody. If that’s what they choose to call, what are you going to do? I’m not mad at that kid.”

As to how Texas A&M processed the moment?

“I was like, ‘Thank you,’” forward Jalen Jones said. “Appreciate the opportunity to help us win the game.”

HAMILTON: How Billy Kennedy is building Texas A&M into a contender

Humphries was left to address that one thing via Twitter as Kentucky headed home. “I will learn from this,” he posted after the game on Saturday. But it says something about a thoroughly bizarre college basketball season that a thoroughly bizarre ending could somehow be interpreted as good for the team gutted by it.

At the finish, one Kentucky frontcourt starter, Derek Willis, had been helped off the floor, putting no weight on his right leg. Another, Marcus Lee, had fouled out midway through overtime. A backup, Alex Poythress, didn’t even suit up due to injury. Another backup, Humphries, played 20 minutes and grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked two shots and wound up sent off for, well, a technicality. At that finish, the lone Wildcats big man left was freshman Skal Labissierre, whose frustrated coach more or less called a first-half timeout in order to tell him, explicitly, to get off the floor.

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And yet Kentucky had put together an effort that nearly won it the game, and otherwise augured well for March. It received more brilliance from its backcourt of Ulis (22 points, 11 assists in 45 minutes) and Jamal Murray (21 points). And, with the Aggies firing at 38.9% for the day, this was the fifth straight game in which an opponent shot worse than 40% from the field. These will never be the same bone- and hope-crushing Wildcats of last season, arguably one of the most formidable defensive units of all time. But they don’t have to be who they were last year. They only have to demonstrate a capacity to be a team that can be incredibly stingy for a good stretch in March.

Only one national champion in the last 15 years, Connecticut in 2014, finished outside the top 30 in defensive efficiency. Kentucky began the day 37th in that department, and finished 49th. Giving up 20 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points tends to diminish your efficiency. Yet Duke began last year’s title run ranked 57th, only to reinvent itself across six games and end up as the country’s 12th-most efficient defense. The inability to defend the paint and/or finish defensive possessions is a gigantic concern, lit in flashing neon by Texas A&M on Saturday. But Kentucky has frustrated opponents just enough lately to suggest a capacity to grow and then fit the criteria almost every championship aspirant must fit.

“We're at a good place defensively,” Ulis said. “We’re starting to focus in and lock in and everyone is starting to guard their man. But at the end of the day we have to get rebounds. In the practices coming up, we’re going to work on that.”

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​Calipari agreed that his team was getting better, though he nonetheless lamented the inconsistency of his team’s toughness. Here, Texas A&M deserves credit for bringing the thought to his mind. Before he settled into a baseline seat for the game, Miller, the former Aggies linebacker and current Super Bowl MVP, offered the last word to his alma mater’s basketball crew before tipoff. He talked about championships and defense, and that supplemented the message delivered by the Aggies coaches.

“The biggest thing was winning the toughness war,” Davis said. “The big man coaches, they kept telling us, get to the glass. Hit the boards. Hit first. Be tough. I wasn’t even focused on scoring tonight. My mentality was to hit the boards. I tried to get every rebound I could.”

He’d wind up with 12 of them, none more percussive than the last. After Humphries’s technical, and after the Aggies’ House hit the two free throws, Labissiere tied the game at 77–77 with one free throw at the other end, shooting in Humphries’s place. (Remember, the Aggies’ hack preceded Humphries’s spike.) As House drove from the wing on the ensuing possession, Davis kept his defender on his backside. When House’s shot went awry, Davis was positioned perfectly to grab the Aggies’ 20th offensive board of the night and release it for the game-winning shot just before time expired.

“I just tried to put it up as quick as possible,” Davis said. “I had no idea how much time was on the clock.”

Just enough, it turns out, to give Texas A&M exactly what it needed.

Sam Craft/AP

The Aggies should be an NCAA tournament team for the first time in coach Billy Kennedy’s tenure. That trajectory seemed set. But the rebuild needed a single moment like this, when the program could absorb whatever the SEC’s resident Goliath could muster and hold up. It nearly happened last year in a two-overtime loss on this same floor. But nearly was never enough.

“When you have the Kentucky jersey on, you can see those kids think they’re going to win every game,” Kennedy said. “This year, we were resilient. I thought we thought we were going to win the game.”

The Aggies draped white T-shirts on every seat at Reed Arena. The students held up fake newspapers with “BTHO Kentucky!” written on them for introductions. They welcomed the Super Bowl MVP and cheered as he danced from his seat during breaks in play. Texas A&M made about as big a deal of this day as it possibly could. It surely envisioned this ending.

HAMILTON: Undeterred Tyler Ulis leading resurgent Kentucky

It just as surely could not have envisioned how it would come about, and to that, Kentucky surely could relate.

“Here’s the hard thing,” Calipari said. “These kids are not machines and they’re not computers. It’s hard for them to be, like, unbelievable energy every night. When I walked in, Billy looked at me and laughed: ‘You have to do this every night you coach.’ This is what we see. We either find it or we get beat. Today I thought we had it. We had a lot of good stuff going on.”

He was right. His team just about had it. And then, boom, the one thing happened.

Nothing to be sorry about, really, when you get hit by something you’d never see coming.

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