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Kentucky Its Own Toughest Critic After Gritty OT Loss at Hostile Kansas

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 30:  Alex Poythress #22, Tyler Ulis #3, and Marcus Lee #00 of the Kentucky Wildcats walk off the court during a timeout in the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on January 30, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Jason KingSenior WriterJanuary 31, 2016

LAWRENCE, Kan. — Shortly after Kentucky's 90-84 overtime loss at Kansas on Saturday night, Wildcats guard Tyler Ulis cut his postgame press conference short and hurried toward the Allen Fieldhouse restroom.

"Sorry about that," Kentucky assistant media relations director Deb Moore told reporters. "Tyler is feeling ill."

Head coach John Calipari wasn't in the most chipper of moods, either, saying he was "still hacked off" about the Wildcats' loss to the Jayhawks.

"When you have a chance to win like we did, and you choke it ... I'm sick to my stomach," Calipari said.

The feeling won't last long.

Or at least it shouldn't.

Even though they may never admit it, the guess here is that sometime in the next 24 hours—perhaps after they watch film—Calipari, Ulis and the rest of the Wildcats will be more encouraged than disheartened about their performance against No. 4 Kansas.

Mainly because it came at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Jayhawks have won 35 straight games in the nation's most hostile arena.

Kansas head coach Bill Self is 201-9 at the legendary venue since taking over for Roy Williams in 2003. Think about how crazy that is. The number of Big 12 titles Self has won at Kansas (11) is actually greater than his number of home losses.

Allen Fieldhouse was so loud Saturday that several Kentucky fans actually wore ear plugs. The players themselves, though, hardly seemed fazed.

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 30:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks with Tyler Ulis #3 during the final minutes of overtime in the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on January 30, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jam
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Wildcats shot 53.2 percent from the field, led by as many as eight points after intermission and easily could've—and maybe even should've—won despite being outscored by 27 points from the foul stripe.

Kentucky's players and staff will preach all day that they don't believe in moral victories, but it's hard to believe they didn't gain confidence from what was mostly a high-level performance.

"We have some fighters," Wildcats forward Alex Poythress said. "Everyone that was playing was fighting. There is no reason for us to hang our heads. Everyone was out there fighting from top to bottom."

That should be a welcome sight in Lexington following what, until recently, has been a maddening season.

Once ranked No. 1 in the nation, Kentucky was blown out by Ohio State and LSU—teams that might not make the NCAA tournament. Skal Labissiere, the freshman forward who was once projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, has been a non-factor. And Poythress has been inconsistent.

The slump culminated in an embarrassing 75-70 loss at Auburn on Jan. 16. Yes, we're talking about the same Auburn that lost to Missouri—one of the worst major-conference teams in Division I.

Calipari asked for patience, a foreign word to the Kentucky fans who deem a season without a Final Four appearance a failure.

After Saturday, their mood should be calm.

"Oh, they're good," Self said of the Wildcats. "It was a great effort by them. I thought that was a really focused team."

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 30:  Skal Labissiere #1 and Jamal Murray #23 of the Kentucky Wildcats foul Wayne Selden Jr. #1 of the Kansas Jayhawks during overtime in the game at Allen Fieldhouse on January 30, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/G
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

No Kentucky player was as impressive as Ulis, who played all 45 minutes and had 26 points, eight assists and three steals. Calipari complained that his squad relied too much on one player, but Ulis' mates in the backcourt performed well, too, with Isaiah Briscoe tallying 12 points, four rebounds and five assists and Jamal Murray adding 15 points and six boards.

"The three guys with the ball on the perimeter are as good as any three guys in America on the same team as far as breaking people down," Self said. "They're a great team. Obviously, they don't have two 7-footers back there, but we certainly struggled scoring over their length."

Currently 16-5 and ranked No. 20, Kentucky is a legitimate top-10 team when it performs like it did Saturday. Calipari has done a nice job improving this squad since the Auburn loss two weeks ago—the Wildcats had won three straight by an average of 22.3 points per game—and, considering he hardly seems content, the strides should continue.

"I have to do a better job of teaching these kids how to win," Calipari said. "They do not know how to win a game, but that's my job. That's why they want me coaching them.

"I have a lot of work to do. I really do."

 

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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