INDIANAPOLIS — With Big Blue Nation and Louisville’s very red and very vocal fan base taking up much of Lucas Oil Stadium’s capacity crowd on Friday, both Commonwealth State teams received louder eruptions taking the floor for warm-ups than the entire exciting finale of the previous Michigan and Tennessee game.
The matchup of the last two national champions — that double as hated rivals — was a unique and memorable experience as No. 8 seed Kentucky won a heated back-and-forth contest with a 74-69 victory over No. 4 seed Louisville in a Midwest Regional Sweet 16 thriller.
Aaron Harrison’s go-ahead three-pointer with 38 seconds remaining gave Kentucky a 70-68 lead as it was the Wildcats’ first lead of the game since holding a 2-0 advantage the first minute of the game. Louisville junior wing Wayne Blackshear was fouled by Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle with 14.2 seconds left and split the pair of free throws to cut it to 70-69.
Randle was fouled on the ensuing possession for Kentucky with 13 seconds left and made both free throws to give Kentucky a 72-69 advantage. Louisville senior guard Russ Smith missed the tying three-point attempt with five seconds left as Aaron Harrison rebounded the ball and sealed the game with two free throws.
Kentucky trailed for nearly the entire second half, but prevailed despite missing sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein for much of the game after the center sprained his ankle. Freshman wing James Young also fouled out with 5:32 remaining in the game and the Wildcats had to get contributions from its bench in order to get past the defending champion Cardinals.
Before the season, Kentucky was touted by some as having the best collection of talent that college basketball had ever seen. The Wildcats and their seven McDonald’s All-Americans stepped up that hype on Friday as Kentucky is one game away from playing in the Final Four.
Randle stepped up with his third straight double-double of the NCAA Tournament, scoring 15 points and grabbing 12 rebounds and becoming only the third player in NCAA history to have three straight double-doubles in the tournament in his freshman year.
Playing for the injured Cauley-Stein, freshman center Dakari Johnson had 15 points and six rebounds and gave Kentucky a huge life on the interior.
Andrew Harrison played a tremendous overall floor game with 14 points, seven assists and five rebounds while his twin brother Aaron hit the clutch shot and also had 15 points.
In a game where Kentucky needed its young and talented team to overcome adversity, the Wildcats passed another big test with flying colors. Suddenly, Kentucky is incredibly dangerous heading into Sunday’s Elite 8 contest against Michigan.
Russ Smith led Louisville with 23 points on the night while senior Luke Hancock added 19 points. Sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell fouled out with 15 points an eight rebounds.
Kentucky defeated Louisville, 73-66, in the matchup of the two teams earlier in the season on December 28th in Lexington.
No. 8 seed Kentucky moves on to face No. 2 seed Michigan in the Elite 8 at 5:05 p.m. on Sunday night for the right to represent the Midwest Regional in the Final Four.