ARLINGTON, Texas — In a hallway just off the court at AT&T Stadium, Julius Randle stepped out of the locker room and plopped onto the back of golf cart. The Kentucky forward rested his hands on his knees and covered his face with his hands, shielding his vision.
Not that it mattered.
Randle didn’t need his eyes in the moments following the Wildcats’ 60-54 loss to Connecticut in Monday’s NCAA title game.
Only his ears.
Despondent as he was, Randle couldn’t help but be uplifted as the cart approached the Kentucky band on its way to the postgame press conference. Their tubas, flutes and drums resting on the concrete, members of the group clapped and cheered for Randle and teammate James Young as they passed through the concourse.
Certainly the Wildcats would’ve rather been celebrating amid a confetti storm on the court as “One Shining Moment” played in the background.
But that gesture from the band, those handshakes from administrators and hugs from coaches in the locker room...they were more appreciative than consolatory. And that was gratifying, too.
“What we accomplished was a remarkable story,” point guard Andrew Harrison said. “It’s a story that’s a lot bigger than this game.”
Kentucky may have come up a few baskets short on college basketball’s biggest stage, but make no mistake. The Wildcats—and their coach—are worthy of applause. Not jeers.
Operating under more scrutiny and skepticism than any team in recent memory, Kentucky opened the season as America’s No. 1-ranked team, lost 10 games and fell out of the polls, finally gelled in mid-March and then, as shooting guard Aaron Harrison said, “put together one of the most impressive runs in NCAA tournament history.”
And that’s no exaggeration.
Kentucky, a No. 8 seed, came from behind to defeat previously-unbeaten Wichita State, rallied to beat defending national champion Louisville and overcame deficits against Michigan and Wisconsin to reach Monday’s title bout.
All with five freshman starters—a first for a championship game participant since Michigan in 1992.
In the end, Kentucky’s youth may have been its downfall, as the Wildcats shot just 39.1 percent while going 13-of-24 from the foul stripe. Kentucky fell behind 30-15 in the opening half and could never recover.
“Why do you think we started (the game) that way?” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They’re all freshmen. They were scared to death again. We tried to settle them down but they were rattled early.”
Randle, Kentucky’s leading scorer and rebounder, was particularly on edge. He had to be subbed three minutes into the game because he was out of breath.
“That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people,” Calipari said. “He ran up and down the court three times and got winded.”
Kentucky pulled within one point three times in the second half but could never recover. Still, as much as the loss stung, the Wildcats were able to take solace in the fact that they proved to the country that they were more than just a collection of McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA draft picks.
Two months ago, this was a disjointed squad trying to find its way.
For the past three weeks, Kentucky has been the epitome of a team.
“Sometimes it just takes a little longer,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. “Everyone likes to use words like ‘sacrifice’ and things like that. But that’s not what got them to the spot they were in tonight.
“They’re freshmen. They began to learn what the game was about. When you see something happen and you have success, all of a sudden it repeats itself. It was never a lack of effort or work. It just took them time to understand.”
Calipari attempted to keep the mood upbeat in the postgame locker room, telling the Wildcats he was proud of them and to hold their heads high. Some players such as Andrew Harrison went from locker to locker, hugging teammates.
“I just walked around and told everyone I love them. It was best experience of my life. We really wanted this one, but at the same time, it’s nothing compared to what we dealt with.”
Calipari was deserving of praise as well. Barnhart raved about the poise the Wildcats coach showed during an up-and-down regular season, particularly after losses to Arkansas (twice) and South Carolina. When everyone else seemed to have lost confidence in his team, Calipari remained upbeat.
“It was like he knew all along that the tide was about to turn,” Barnhart said. “It was a remarkable job by him. A remarkable job.”
Multiple times after Monday’s loss, the Wildcats were asked about next season. Randle and James Young are projected NBA lottery picks and will almost certainly turn pro. Willie Cauley-Stein and the Harrison twins are also potential first-rounders, but none of them announced their intentions late Monday.
If all of those players leave—which is a strong possibility—then freshman center Dakari Johnson and junior forward Alex Poythress would be the only returning players who logged significant minutes in 2013-14.
“I’ve never coached a team this young. Never,” Calipari said. “I hope I don’t ever again. I told them this was the best group I’ve ever coached as far as really being coachable and wanting to learn.”
No matter what their future may hold, the Wildcats said reaching Monday’s title game will be among the crowning achievements of their lives.
“No one even thought we’d be here,” Andrew Harrison said. “The stuff we fought through and the scrutiny we took, it’s amazing. This loss hurt us, but this season won’t be remembered just for what happened tonight.
“It’s bigger than that.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.