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.