Disputed call dooms onetime top-five Texas A&M to an 0-4 start to SEC play

Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, left, looks for a teammate while pressured by Texas A&M’s JJ Caldwell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Lexington, Ky. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

Starting 0-4 in league play would be frustrating under any circumstances for onetime presumptive SEC favorite Texas A&M.

That the Aggies’ latest loss ended controversially only makes it extra disheartening.

When Kentucky’s P.J. Washington failed to extend his team’s one-point lead at the free throw line with 3.9 seconds left in the game, Texas A&M point guard J.J. Caldwell raced up floor and threw a three-quarters court pass that sailed over the outstretched arm of teammate Tyler Davis. Replays showed that Davis was held by Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabriel, but the referees missed it and awarded the 21st-ranked Wildcats a 74-73 victory.

Texas A&M players protested the lack of a foul call vociferously before walking off the floor at Rupp Arena. Aggies coach Billy Kennedy admitted to reporters in Lexington that it would have been a tough call for the referees to make on the road in the final seconds, but he also said “my guys tell me [Davis] was bear-hugged.”

To come so close to securing a road win at Kentucky yet still fall short has to be crushing for a Texas A&M team desperate for a win. The Aggies entered SEC play with an 11-1 record and a top-10 ranking, but they’ve crashed and burned since then thanks in part to an ill-timed suspension to forward D.J. Hogg and injuries to fellow starters Admon Gilder, Duane Wilson and Robert Williams.

Blowout losses to Florida and Alabama started Texas A&M’s losing streak. Then came a heartbreaking home loss to LSU on an off-balance Tremont Waters buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Now the Aggies have to stomach another narrow loss to a Kentucky team that only had seven available scholarship players and used walk-on Brad Calipari for meaningful minutes during the first half.

Texas A&M led by as many as six points midway through the second half, but the sloppy Aggies made too many errors down the stretch. They were tentative and confused attacking Kentucky’s zone, they committed two key turnovers in the final three minutes and they also missed four critical late free throws.

Amazingly, Texas A&M still had chances to tie or win the game in the final seconds because Kentucky wasn’t much better putting the game away. Gilder missed a corner 3-pointer that could have tied the game with 10 seconds left and then Davis was robbed of one final chance to win the game on the final possession of regulation.

While an 0-4 start likely removes Texas A&M from the SEC title picture, it’s too premature to declare the Aggies out of NCAA tournament contention. This is a talented team that handed West Virginia its lone loss this season and also defeated USC and Oklahoma State in non-league play. Texas A&M is also getting stronger with Hogg returning from suspension against LSU and Gilder and Williams both coming back from injury Tuesday.

The problem for Texas A&M is that the schedule won’t get any easier for awhile. Up next is a road game at Tennessee on Saturday, followed by challenging yet winnable home games against Ole Miss and Missouri. Looming later this season are road games against Kansas, Auburn, Arkansas and Georgia as well as a rematch with Kentucky at home.

Texas A&M shouldn’t expect much sympathy from Kentucky on Tuesday night given the recent history between the two programs.

It was less than two years ago that Kentucky’s Isaac Humphries received a technical foul for slamming the ball down in celebration after he grabbed a defensive rebound with the Wildcats leading by one and 9.4 seconds left in overtime. Texas A&M went on to win that game 79-77.

The roles were reversed Tuesday. This time it was Kentucky celebrating a win aided by a lucky break and Texas A&M lamenting a controversial loss.

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!