Kentucky continues to fight with its Sweet 16 win over Louisville

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INDIANAPOLIS — The intense rivalry game between No. 8 seed Kentucky and No. 4 seed Louisville came down to the final minute in Friday’s Sweet 16 thriller at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But despite never leading since a 2-0 advantage in the first minute of the game, Kentucky was able to use a go-ahead three-pointer from Aaron Harrison with 38 seconds remaining to take a 70-68 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish in holding out for a 74-69 win.

In a season full of finger-pointing and failing to overcome adversity, John Calipari’s Wildcats once again showed that they’re starting to put things together as Kentucky enters Sunday’s Elite 8 contest with No. 2 seed Michigan.

Despite missing sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein to a sprained ankle and freshman wing James Young fouling out with 5:32 remaining, Kentucky continued to fight despite trailing their rival and the defending champion Cardinals for nearly the entire game.

Freshmen like center Dakari Johnson and guard Dominique Hawkins played key minutes down the stretch for Kentucky as Andrew Harrison continued to be the Wildcats’ vocal leader in the game’s final minutes. Aaron Harrison hit the go-ahead basket and Julius Randle recorded his third consecutive double-double to open the NCAA Tournament — only the third time a freshman has ever done that.

Kentucky stayed unified despite losing two key players in the biggest game of the Wildcats’ lives and now they are one game away from playing in the Final Four.

“(Andrew) told us we were going to fight and win, that’s his two biggest words that I kept remembering coming out of his mouth,” Hawkins said. “In the huddles and on the court. We were going to fight and win and find a way to win.”

Indeed Kentucky — who lost 10 regular season games including losses to Arkansas and South Carolina — outfought the defending national champions in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats have outfought previously-unbeaten Wichita State and defending champion Louisville in back-to-back games. A team composed mainly of freshmen and sophomores came together and beat two of last year’s Final Four teams in the last week. Kentucky is finally realizing its scary upside at precisely the right moment.

​”We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It’s a new season, the postseason,” Randle said. “That’s really all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we’ve gotta take one game at a time. We carry momentum from the SEC Tournament and brought it to the NCAA Tournament. We’re just taking it a game at a time.”

The dejected Cardinals locker room was filled with tears and frustration in what amounted to getting out-played by their rival in the game’s defining moments. Kentucky had 18 second-chance points against Louisville and won despite shooting 28 percent from the three-point line (4-for-14). The Wildcats trailed by seven points with 4:11 left.

It wasn’t pretty, but Kentucky clawed its way back by cleaning up misses and hitting the glass as hard as possible. Kentucky needed maximum effort from all five players on the floor to get past Louisville.

“They wanted it more than us. Obviously you can see that on the backboards,” Louisville junior Wayne Blackshear said. “That was the key thing for us and we didn’t come away with it.”

Although sophomore forward Alex Poythress only scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 14 minutes of play, he was a key reason why Kentucky won on Friday. Poythress’ three-point play tied the game at 66 with 2:13 remaining and the sophomore was finally making winning plays after struggling the entire game.

After getting yelled at on the bench for much of the game, Poythress woke up and along with him, Kentucky.

“To see what he went through the whole game — he was struggling the whole game — in the final five minutes just the plays he made, the rebound and the and-one putback and the free throws, that just shows what kind of kid he is. Those plays are the reason we won the game,” Kentucky senior guard Jarrod Polson said.

“​I will say this because he’s not up here, Alex Poythress won the game for us,” Calipari said. “We were begging him the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time. It was unbelievable how he finished. That’s who he needs to be for us as we finish the year out.”

With the Harrison twins and Julius Randle continuing their consistent start in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has used other players at different times to complement their three key freshmen.

Young stepped up and made big plays down the stretch against Wichita State last weekend and on Friday, Johnson, Hawkins and Poythress continued to make unsung contributions that helped lead Kentucky to a win.

The Wildcats appear ready to fight anyone in their path and right now they’re a dangerous team since they’re playing together.

Michigan will be the third consecutive Final Four opponent from last season that Kentucky will face in the 2014 NCAA Tournament as they attempt to make their own trip to the third weekend with a win on Sunday.

Can the Wildcats make it 3-for-3? With they way they’re fighting, it certainly seems possible.

“(I) told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood. You’re going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing,” Calipari said.

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jerred Shayok will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Porter, Jr. will ask for Washington release

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There may be an overwhelming assumption on where Michael Porter, Jr. – and his father – will ultimately end up, but the five-star recruit is said publicly that he see his re-recruitment process through.

Porter, Jr. said in a teleconference Wednesday that he will ask for his release from Washington, and his father, a former Huskies assistant, has been offered a job at Missouri by new Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin.

“Right now I’m just trying to take it slow with my family and weigh my options,” Porter Jr. said, according to the Kansas City Star. “I plan to get my (national letter of intent) from Washington back and just go from there, not saying that I’m not going to Washington anymore, but I just want to get it back and weigh my options.”

The prevailing thought has been that the Porters will ultimately land in Columbia, where they have significant history.

Still, it would appear at least publicly that Porter, Jr., a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, will weigh his options in at least the short-term.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.