INDIANAPOLIS — Up and down the defending national champions went, turning rebounds into baskets and baskets into opportunities for more steals. Louisville’s pace was too fast for Kentucky early in Friday night’s Sweet 16, and the stage looked too big for the blue-clad freshmen, too.
All part of the plan? No. But it was part of the itinerary.
“We knew how this would start,” a smiling John Calipari said after the game. “We knew (our guys) would pee down their leg.”
It’s quite a visual. It was quite a visual inside Lucas Oil Stadium, too, where, 41,072 had gathered for a loser-goes-home rematch of one of college basketball’s best rivalries. Louisville’s energy keyed a hot start, but Kentucky battled back and eventually laughed last.
From 18-5 down after that initial surge, Kentucky settled in and tied it early in the second half before falling down by seven again, as late as the final five minutes. The Wildcats finally got the lead with 1:26 left, Louisville came right back to regain it, and a 3-pointer from the corner by Aaron Harrison with 39 seconds left put Kentucky up for good.
Wildcats 74, Cardinals 69.
It lived up to the billing.
“We lost a great fight,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
The Cardinals kept stretching it out with senior guards Russ Smith (23 points) and Luke Hancock (19) delivering timely shots. But down two after the Harrison 3-pointer, Wayne Blackshear split a pair of free throws and after Kentucky manchild Julius Randle made two on the other end, Smith forced up a 3-pointer to tie that wasn’t close.
Kentucky led for all of 1:05 but lives to play another day; Sunday afternoon against Michigan for a trip to the Final Four, to be exact. The No. 8 seed Wildcats are getting better by the hour, too.
“I told them before the game, “You’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re gonna taste blood,” said Calipari, who improved to 6-1 as Kentucky’s coach vs. Pitino and Louisville. “They fought. They never stopped playing.”
A sign of this team’s growth came not just in weathering several storms — every run and every big dunk were followed by monstrous applause from one team’s fan base — but in specific plays down the stretch. Harrison’s winning 3-pointer happened only after Randle kicked the ball out to the corner from a very crowded block.
That’s something that might not have happened a couple months ago. Or even a couple weeks ago.
“We just kind of had to put the past behind us, leave it where it was,” Randle said.
Harrison launched the high-arching shot and held his hand up like knew it was going in as soon as it left his hand.
Asked after the game if he did know, he shrugged. His twin brother, Andrew, whispered to him, “Say yes.”
Of course he knew. This Kentucky team is starting to believe.
“You’re never guaranteed it’s going in,” Aaron Harrison said. “But it felt good.”
Louisville went just 13-of-23 from free throw line and was outrebounded 37-29, and Pitino pointed to those two things as keys. Kentucky got 18 second chance points and Randle finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Perhaps most importantly, both of Louisville’s starting post players, Stephan Van Treese and Montrezl Harrell, fouled out.
Over the last 30 minutes but specifically over the last six, Kentucky was rewarded for its aggression. Alex Poythress brought energy off the bench — “Alex won the game for us,” Calipari said — and joined Randle in battling in the paint. Kentucky had put scout team players in football pads this week to prepare for Louisville’s physicality, and in the end the young Wildcats got the final bump.
“We didn’t want to hear any excuses,” Calipari said.
When it was over, Louisville offered none.
“We hate losing to Kentucky,” Pitino said. “They’re going to be very, very tough to beat.”