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.

VIDEO: Deandre Ayton NBA Draft Prospect Profile

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Over the course of the next month, I will be putting together NBA Draft Prospect Profiles for our sister site, Pro Basketball Talk, of the most talented and promising prospects from the college ranks.

Today, the first example of those profiles went live. It’s of Deandre Ayton and you can read all of the 1,500 words here. We take a good long look at why he’s the best prospect in the draft and the reasons why he may never actually reach his immense ceiling.

If you’re not into reading, here is a four-minute video breakdown of his strengths, his weaknesses and how he can turn the latter into the former.

Florida State’s leading scorer gets extra year of eligibility

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Florida State announced on Friday that Phil Cofer has been granted a fifth-year of eligibility by the NCAA.

Cofer is a 6-foot-8 power forward that averaged 12.8 points and 5.1 boards a season ago, shooting 37.5 percent from three and providing the kind of versatility defensively that allowed the Seminoles to play they way that they needed to play.

“I am happy to announce that I will be returning to Florida State’s basketball team next season,” Cofer said in a statement. “I have been working hard, on and off the court, to prepare for another incredible season. I can’t wait to put the Florida State uniform back on.”

The Seminoles are currently ranked 13th in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

Jessie Govan returning to Georgetown for senior season

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Jessie Govan is returning to Georgetown.

The 6-foot-10 center who averaged a double-double last season will withdraw from the NBA draft to play his senior season with the Hoyas, according to multiple reports.

Govan’s return to D.C. is a huge development for the Hoyas. As a junior, Govan averaged 17.9 points and 10 rebounds per game. He shot 50.8 percent from the floor and 34.8 percent from distance. He went from a nice contributor as a sophomore to a breakout star last season for first-year coach Patrick Ewing.

Without Govan, the Georgetown frontcourt would have been very young and unproven. Now Ewing gets back a major impact player who will not only help the Hoyas compete in 2018-19, but bridge the gap to NC State transfer Omer Yurtseven’s eligibility in 2019.

The Hoyas were surprisingly competitive in Ewing’s first year back at his alma mater, and now has a chance to see an even bigger uptick this season with its anchor in the middle back in the fold.

Mizzou settles lawsuit brought by South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley

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An ugly episode has reached its conclusion with the University of Missouri paying $50,000 and its athletic director apologizing to South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley.

Mizzou will donate $25,000 to Staley’s charity foundation and the other $25,000 going to her attorneys after she filed a defamation lawsuit stemming from an incident last winter when Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk claimed she “promoted that kind of atmosphere” after he alleged that Missouri players were called racial epithets and spit on after a game at South Carolina in January.

“Following a very spirited and intense game I attended in late January between the nationally ranked Missouri and South Carolina women’s basketball teams, I made comments in a local radio interview that were construed to suggest that Coach Staley promoted the negative experiences of racial epithets and spitting,” Sterk said in a statement Missouri released Thursday.

“I do not believe Coach Staley would promote such conduct, and I sincerely apologize to her for those comments.”

The lawsuit, which was filed in February, stemmed from an incident after a Missouri player claimed she had been spit after a loss in Columbia in January.

“We had players spit on and called the ‘N’ word and things like that,” Sterk said on Jan. 30, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I mean it was not a good environment and unfortunately and I think Coach (Dawn) Staley promoted that kind of atmosphere. And it’s unfortunate that she felt she had to do that.”

With Thursday’s announced settlement, both parties are looking to put the incident in the past.

“I accept his apology and I appreciate the contribution of $25,000 to INNERSOLE, a not for profit organization I co-founded that provides new sneakers to children who are homeless or in need,” Staley said in a statement. “I’m glad we can share in support of this worthy cause and I look forward to moving past this with a continued spirited but positive competition amongst our programs.”  

 

SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchups unveiled

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A meeting between two of the sport’s most successful programs highlights this year’s slate of games in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, which was unveiled Thursday.

Kansas will visit Rupp Arena to play Kentucky on Jan. 26 as part of the annual event’s sixth year of competition.

The Jayhawks have won three-straight against the Wildcats with two being part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge and last year’s meeting part of the Champion’s Classic. Both teams ranked in the top five of our preseason Top 25.

Another marquee matchup will be defending SEC champ and likely top-10 preseason ranked Tennessee hosting Bob Huggins and West Virginia. Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton will welcome his alma mater to Stillwater with South Carolina the Cowboys’ matchup.

All games will be played on Saturday, Jan. 26. The challenge was split 5-5 last season. The Big 12 holds a 3-1-1 advantage in the event with its teams holding an overall record of 29-21.

2019 SEC/Big 12 Challenge

Alabama at Baylor

Iowa State At Ole Miss

Kansas at Kentucky

Kansas State at Texas A&M

Vanderbilt at Oklahoma

South Carolina at Oklahoma State

Florida at TCU

Texas at Georgia

Arkansas at Texas Tech

West Virginia at Tennessee