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Kentucky’s loss bears resemblance to 2007 Patriots

Patriots fans know the feeling that washed over Kentucky Wildcats fans after their loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four: disappointment and disbelief.
Patriots fans know the feeling that washed over Kentucky Wildcats fans after their loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four: disappointment and disbelief.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS — Dear Kentucky fans, it's going to be OK. We feel your almost perfect pain. We can relate to the anguish of being on the doorstep of a historic undefeated season only to have the door rudely slammed in your face. Welcome to the club — signed Patriots fans.

If any fanbase can have empathy for what happened to the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night in the Final Four, watching their flawless season turn into a failure with a 71-64 loss to Wisconsin, it's Patriots fans. Losing on the brink of a championship is always gut-wrenching, but there is a special kind of misery when a place in history is lost as well. Now, there is a special kind of kinship and commiseration between the Foxborough Faithful and Big Blue Nation.

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The Patriots experienced history lost in 2007, trying to become the first undefeated NFL team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins. New England authored the only 16-0 regular-season in NFL history, won two more games to reach Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants, and then David Tyree happened. Suddenly, 18-0 became 18-and-won nothing.

Kentucky was the first team in men's college basketball history to start a season 38-0. They were trying to become the first men's team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to complete a perfect season. Now, they'll watch Wisconsin and Duke play for the national title on Monday night. Someone else is taking their date with history home.

There is a fine line between being remembered forever and becoming a forgotten footnote.

"Not going 40-0, I think that probably hurts worse than not winning a national championship, even though every year that's the goal for every team," said Josh McKinney, the sports director at WYMT-TV, which serves eastern Kentucky, when asked to provide the pulse of the Kentucky fanbase the Day After.

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"There were 40-0 T-shirts all season long. It's been talked about for months. Not finishing the job and being so close I think hurts more than anything else for a lot of people."

Basketball is a religion in Kentucky, whichever pew you sit in, Kentucky or Louisville. On Easter Sunday there were dazed Kentucky fans walking the streets of Indianapolis, forcing wan smiles and still trying to process the unthinkable — a loss for coach John Calipari and the Wildcats.

Those were the fans who hadn't already fled the scene of the crime.

"Nobody remembers No. 2 or No. 3," said Kentucky fan Megan Hannigan, standing in the lobby of the Kentucky team hotel with her boyfriend, Coulter Minix. "I can tell you we will not be watching 'SportsCenter' for about a month."

It all sounds familiar doesn't it?

Having covered the Patriots' defeat in Super Bowl XLII in 2008, there was deja vu and an eerie emptiness in the aftermath of Kentucky's loss Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Like the Patriots, Kentucky rallied to take a late lead. The Wildcats clawed back after trailing most of the second half and led, 60-56, with 4½ minutes left.

The game was tied, 60-60, when Wisconsin's Sam Dekker delivered the Tyree moment, a step-back 3-pointer with 1:42 left. This is not to say Dekker, who is earmarked for the NBA, is a Tyree-esque one-shot wonder or that his shot was lucky. Only that it was similarly soul-crushing.

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"That was literally a dagger into the state of Kentucky," said Tanner Hesterberg, a reporter at WYMT-TV.

Patriots fans will point out they got a game closer to immortality than Kentucky.

But making a Final Four in college basketball is like making it to a championship game in pro sports. That's why Final Four teams hang banners in their gyms and coaches tout Final Four appearances on their résumés.

As devastating as Kentucky's loss was, it does not top the list of heartbreaking NCAA Tournament defeats for Big Blue. That distinction belongs to Kentucky's loss to Duke in the 1992 East Regional Final in Philadelphia, better known as the Christian Laettner Game. Rick Pitino's Kentucky team lost possibly the greatest college basketball game ever played on Laettner's overtime buzzer-beater.

Kentucky fans despise Duke and the mere mention of Laettner's name has them twitching. It's like mentioning Bucky Dent or the 1986 World Series to a Red Sox fan.

Before Saturday night there were already some striking similarities between the fanbases of the Patriots and Kentucky.

Both teams are viewed as the Death Stars of their sport. The Patriots have gone to four straight AFC Championship games. Kentucky was at their fourth Final Four in five years.

Both teams have coaches that are revered by their fanbases and reviled by a good portion of the rest of the country. The schadenfreude surrounding Kentucky's loss was amplified by the personal distaste some college basketball fans have for Calipari. Seeing him fail gives some a euphoric high. It's the same with the Patriots and Bill Belichick. Our Bill is a much better in-game strategist than Cal. But Cal gets the charisma nod.

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Both Calipari and Belichick have been accused of bending the rules. Calipari has never been sanctioned by the NCAA, but he had Final Four appearances at the University of Massachusetts and Memphis vacated. Belichick has Spygate on his résumé and is awaiting the NFL's ruling regarding deflated footballs the league claims the Patriots used in the AFC Championship game.

Both fanbases are obsessed with national media haters and are more sensitive than a fresh paper cut. Patriots fans are known to wear "They Hate Us Cause They Ain't Us" T-shirts. I saw a guy wearing a Kentucky T-shirt with the same motto here in Indy.

Both have a, well, "team-friendly" media contingent.

Now, both teams can bond over near-perfect seasons that no one else will fully appreciate.


Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.