Grizzlies golden, Cats fall flat in NCAA opener

Published 11:02 am Friday, March 22, 2024

Tre Mitchell walked out of the locker room with a towel over his head. He was joined by Antonio Reeves as they prepared to face the media following another one-and-done appearance in the postseason.

It was another stunning early exit for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night. The Wildcats, the No. 3 seed in the South Region, suffered their second opening-round loss in three years with an 80-76 setback to No. 14 seed Oakland. Kentucky is 1-3 in its last three NCAA Tournament appearances.

“Oakland played a heck of a game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They made some unbelievable shots. … You go through this, and I’ve been in the ups and downs of this sport, but this one I’m really hurting for them, because there’s other years your team, you max out and you lose a game and you’re like, geez. This team, I really felt, could have done so much more and our fans were here again.”

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Coming off a perplexing 97-87 loss to Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament last Friday, Kentucky (23-10) never led by more than two against the Grizzlies, the Horizon League champion, that won its second NCAA Tournament game (the first one a play-in game). They never led by more than seven against Kentucky and made clutch shots throughout the contest.

“We just win close games,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “We’ve done it all year. We lost a very close one to Ohio State and a very close one to Illinois. We learned from those games. When we beat Xavier in a close game, we knew we were a special team.”

Kentucky had 11 turnovers, were outrebounded (40-39) and managed just eight points in transition.

“We made some critical mistakes at critical times again today,” Calipari said. “We had our chances. As good as they played, and as many shots as they made, we still had our chances. And both on defense and offense. And when you have a really young team and you look at where did the mistakes come from, they were freshmen.”

Kentucky couldn’t stop Jack Gohlke, who made 10 3-pointers and scored 32 points to trigger the upset. His outing lifted the Grizzlies to their first tournament win since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.

Behind the career performance by Gohlke, Oakland (24-11) held off a late surge by the Wildcats after Kentucky pulled to within one with 1:16 remaining, but the Cats missed two 3-pointers down the stretch while the Grizzlies made a pair of free throws to seal the first major upset in the prestigious event.

“He kept shooting the ball,” Kentucky guard Antonio Reeves said. “You know he missed a couple but he made a lot of them, and he made some really tough shots down the stretch that, you know, we was in his face and it was kind of, you know, one of those things where, you know, it’s March.”

In his last contest with the Wildcats, Reeves finished with 27 points, followed by Mitchell with 14 and Justin Edwards and Rob Dillingham with 10 points each.

Mitchell, a native of Pittsburgh, was disappointed in the outcome.

“It’s March, you know. It’s March. You see what some teams are capable of doing,” he said. “It’s not the desired outcome, but you gotta live with what reality is for us. But I’ve enjoyed every single second of being at Kentucky. I got an opportunity to live out a dream, and I’ve built bonds with people that will last a lifetime.”