Never-say-die Cats storm back and into the Elite Eight
March 29, 2014INDIANA SPORTS PAGE
INDIANAPOLIS - To hear Andrew Harrison tell it, the Kentucky Wildcats were comfortable when they were down 13 and without Willie Cauley-Stein, who was lost for the rest of the game with a left ankle injury.
They were comfortable when Luke Hancock hit back-to-back 3-pointers, James Young fouled out and momentum was swinging in Louisville's favor. They were comfortable down seven to the defending national champions with 4:33 left in the game.
Comfortable? Are you kidding?
Believe it, because these Kentucky Wildcats continue to do the unbelievable in the postseason.
Left for dead like they were so many times this season, the Cats (27-10) jolted back to life late in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup and somehow knocked off their archrivals with a shocking, almost impossible-to-fathom 74-69 victory over the Cardinals (31-6) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"Told them before the game, you'll get punched in the mouth and you're going to taste blood," John Calipari said. "You're going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing."
Even when the late-season turnaround seemed to finally be coming to an end.
"As much stuff as we've been through all year, it's nothing we haven't seen," Andrew Harrison said.
This was just the latest magic trick in a season that seemed destined for failure as recently as three weeks ago.
Trailing 66-59 with 4:33 remaining, the Cats, who had seemingly hung around all game without ever getting over the hump, went on a 15-3 run to close out the game. When Russ Smith missed a 3-pointer with just four seconds to go and Aaron Harrison followed with two game-clinching free throws, UK was headed back to the Elite Eight for the fourth time in five seasons under Coach Cal.
As the Cats jumped jubilantly at midcourt for the second straight game, one thing was crystal clear: The disappointment of the regular season is now a thing of the past. For all the expectations UK didn't meet in the regular season, it has exceeded them in the postseason and rewritten how this team will be remembered.
"In a way I think we have (rewritten our history)," Julius Randle said. "We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It's a new season, the postseason. That's all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we've gotta take it one game at a time."
The next game up will be a date with second-seeded Michigan on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. on CBS with a berth to the Final Four on the line.
Poythress, nothing short of a nonfactor for the first 35-plus minutes of the game, ignited the comeback when Andrew Harrison found him wide open on the baseline with a slick one-handed pass for a dunk.
On the very next possession, with Louisville's Smith looking to provide the dagger, Poythress seemingly came out of nowhere to block Smith's shot off the backboard. After Randle got UK within three on a jumper, Poythress manned up on Hancock, who had torched the Cats just minutes earlier, and forced a turnover.
"We were begging him the whole game to start playing and he played at the right time," Coach Cal said. "It was unbelievable how he finished."
After Randle missed a pair of shots inside, Poythress got the second offensive rebound in traffic, went back up against Montrezl Harrell and banked the shot in. The foul was the fourth on Harrell, U of L's best big man, and the ensuing free throw tied the game.
But he wasn't done yet.
After a turnover by Smith, Poythress got the ball again and knocked Harrell out of the game. He hit 1 of 2 free throws to give UK a 67-66 lead.
"He's the reason we won the game," Aaron Harrison said.
Aaron Harrison may have had a thing or two to do with it too.
Down by one after a Smith jumper, Calipari put the ball back in the hands of his best player, Randle, to deliver the knockout punch, and he delivered - with a pass.
Randle drove into the lane, spun into traffic and then kicked it out to Aaron Harrison in the corner. Like he has done so many times in the postseason, Aaron Harrison swished the 3, giving UK a 70-68 lead it would never relinquish.
"I was definitely looking to shoot but I saw Aaron just wide open in the corner," Randle said. "He's made that shot a million times. I didn't even really go to offensive rebound because I knew he was making it."
Said Calipari: "Three weeks ago he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket. Now, he's just playing the game as it comes. And that's what - they're playing for each other. They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It's just taken us a long time."
Wayne Blackshear missed 1 of 2 free throws with 14.2 seconds left, Randle sunk two more free throws to go back up by three and Smith missed a game-tying 3 in the closing seconds, sending a bunch of freshmen and sophomores who weren't supposed to have this type of resolve to the Elite Eight amid a week of unrelenting buildup and hype.
In the process, UK delivered Rick Pitino his first loss in 12 games in the Sweet 16 while improving Calipari's record to 6-1 vs. Louisville as Kentucky's head coach.
"It's just we got to keep fighting," Aaron Harrison said. "I think we've gotten that over the last three or four weeks. We've been down in the last couple of games and we knew we'd been through a lot this season and we knew we could get through anything if we got through what we did this season."
They even got through a devastating injury to their best defensive player, Cauley-Stein, who left the game with 13:05 left in the first half with an ankle injury. Calipari confirmed after the game that "it's not a good ankle injury," but that was obvious when Cauley-Stein limped back to the locker room with hardly any weight on his left foot.
UK could have folded, down 13 just seconds after the injury, but Dakari Johnson stepped up with a career-high-tying 15 points and six rebounds, Randle bullied his way to 15 points and 12 rebounds, and the Harrison twins combined for 29 points.
Kentucky shot just 43.6 percent overall and allowed U of L's three-headed monster of Smith, Harrell and Hancock to have their way offensively, but the Cardiac Cats, who don't seemed to be fazed by any type of adversity anymore after a roller-coaster regular season, never wilted.
The question now is, will they ever?
"This team has fought the whole year," Calipari said. "They're maturing right before our eyes."