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Ashley Scoby: Road to season of perfection had genesis in Bahamas exhibition defeat


Tyler Ulis says he remembers Kentucky's exhibition loss mainly because he missed some critical free throws and three-point attempts near the end (UK Athletics Photo)

Tyler Ulis says he remembers Kentucky’s exhibition loss mainly because he missed some critical free throws and three-point attempts near the end (UK Athletics Photo)

 

CLEVELAND — The concrete answer for “how to beat Kentucky” requires a run-on sentence, and a look back to August.
 

This team can lose – and it has – when they have played six games in eight days, against a team that it had already beaten by 12 earlier that week; on a game-winning shot with two seconds on the clock by a professional team; and, oh yeah, with Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles unavailable.
 

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No, really, that perfect storm has happened once before. And it’s the closest thing to a blemish on Kentucky’s season that can be found. During the now 37-0 Wildcats’ preseason trip to the Bahamas, they lost their last game of the series to the Dominican National Team, 63-62, off a Jack Michael Martinez game-winner.
 

Since it was an exhibition, the loss didn’t count, and the stats will never make the record books. So perfection remains intact.
 

“We were in the Bahamas. It didn’t count,” Marcus Lee said, smiling. “We were all happy. … That was such a long time ago. It was just a point where we were just trying to figure things out and try new things, so it wasn’t so much about winning the game at that point, but trying to figure each other out and gel well together.”
 

To several on Kentucky’s team, the Bahamas trip remains almost a mirage: A memory of a beach and a lazy river, but a haze around everything else, including the moment when Martinez’ shot floated in, and an ‘L’ appeared on UK’s side of the scoresheet. Kentucky’s loss remains a cloudy fog to many who participated.
 

“It’s like it never happened,” said Dakari Johnson, shaking his head.
 

But that’s not true for everyone: For some, a loss in any situation – an NCAA tournament game, on a YMCA court, or, yes, in an exhibition against a professional team – stings.
 

“Oh, I remember the game because I missed free throws and two threes at the end,” Tyler Ulis said. “I just learned that in big moments I have to knock down shots.”
 

Everyone else on the team learned how to push past mental exhaustion. They had played six games in eight days against professional teams, and were just ready to load up that plane back to Lexington and sleep. Maybe even a massage would be on the horizon.
 

Although Kentucky hasn’t succumbed to “The Pressure” during the regular season, they did so in the preseason, even if just for a moment.
 

“We felt like we played a lot of games and we wanted to get that game over with,” said Dominique Hawkins, who played 18 minutes in that loss to the Dominican national team. “We were all fatigued. We were just ready to get back home.”
 

Once they did return home, the journey of perfection began. Whether they realized it at the time or not, the Wildcats had meshed into a group that would make history, thanks to those days on the beach.
 

Would this season be as it is now – that is, perfect – if UK had not flown to that island this summer?
 

“I don’t think so,” Aaron Harrison said. “We became closer as teammates, and I think that we got a heads-up on everyone by going down there and playing, becoming a team earlier than everyone else.”
 

Perfection now has turned that memory of a “loss” into a moment that hardly anyone on the team remembers. Clouded by mental and physical fatigue, they ran out of gas against a professional opponent, and it’s now the only time this season that a stat sheet would show Kentucky having fewer points than its opponent.
 

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Did it “technically” happen? The record books will forever say no.
 

But whether they remember the gory details of that game or not, there is one thing Kentucky does remember: the feeling of not being perfect – a one-time, unofficial mirage.
 

As Kentucky shuttles through the NCAA tournament – it will take on No. 3 seed Notre Dame Saturday night for a trip to the Final Four – that memory of loss is one they can’t afford to “officially” repeat.
 

“We lost. You don’t want to have that feeling,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “I think that Bahamas trip taught us everything from how to gel better together, to how to win games, how to play well, how we look when we’re playing really well, and how a loss feels. That’s the biggest thing. We came into this season and we didn’t want to feel that feeling again.”
 

Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York in June.


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