What looked like a historic Kentucky loss Monday night became a twin killing.
Staring at the program's first loss to a team from a non-major conference since 2009, Andrew and Aaron Harrison rallied Kentucky to a 68-61 victory over Cleveland State.
The Cats, 5-1, trailed most of the game and by 10 points with barely seven minutes left. UK didn't take the lead for good until Andrew Harrison hit a floater while being fouled with 2:08 left. His three-point play put the Cats ahead 60-57.
Kentucky made the clutch plays down the stretch. Offensively, the twins contributed to 13 of UK's final 24 points. Defensively, the Cats limited Cleveland State to two baskets in the final 8:14.
This youth-will-be-served display of clutch play prompted Cleveland State Coach Gary Waters to whisper to his UK counterpart, "You needed this more than I did."
Waters explained his message to UK Coach John Calipari. "It doesn't look good for us to beat Kentucky," he said.
Calipari saw the game as a 40-minute lesson for his freshman-dependent team. The lesson? Play 40 minutes.
"It was a game we needed," he said. "'OK, are you ready to start changing?'"
His heady freshmen needed a crisis, he said. "Not Michigan State, where you come back and almost win. They think they're OK.
"Cleveland State deserved to win."
Calipari's home record improved to 72-2, but that near monopoly on victory in Rupp Arena survived a severe test from Cleveland State. Cleveland State (3-3) had two more baskets (21-19), but UK enjoyed a 27-14 advantage in free throws made.
In Calipari's five seasons as UK coach, the Cats have lost at home twice: to Baylor and Texas A&M last season. Kentucky last lost to a team from one of the six major conferences on Nov. 14, 2009 (a 111-103 defeat to VMI in Billy Gillispie's final season as coach).
Cleveland State joined Michigan State as the only opponents to lead Kentucky at halftime.
The Vikings led 31-27 at halftime. Free throws kept Kentucky close. Although UK had four fewer baskets (11-7), five more made free throws kept Cleveland State from building a bigger lead.
Belatedly, Kentucky's defense asserted itself. Cleveland State made five of its first six shots en route to an early 19-10 lead. But the Vikings made only four of 21 shots during a 13-minute span that saw Kentucky rally.
Two free throws by Willie Cauley-Stein gave UK a 25-22 lead with 5:40 left. That matched UK's largest first-half lead. To that point, Kentucky had made 12 of 18 free throws while Cleveland State was two for four from the line.
Kentucky made only one of its final seven shots of the half. In that seven-minute span, Cleveland State built its halftime lead.
With UK trailing 28-27 in the final minute, freshman Dominique Hawkins fouled Bryn Forbes on a three-point attempt. Forbes, who came into the game having made 28 of 29 free throws (96.6 percent), made all three with 49.5 seconds left to set the halftime score. His 11-for-11 free-throwing was part of a 22-point night.
Nothing changed in the early minutes of the second half. Kentucky missed five of its first seven shots.
Meanwhile, a put-back by Trey Lewis put Cleveland State ahead 44-33. That was UK's largest deficit and prompted a timeout with 14:11 left.
With everyone likely expecting Kentucky to go to Julius Randle, the Cats got a three-point shot from James Young. His swish was UK's first trey and reduced Cleveland State's lead to 44-36.
A second three-pointer — from Alex Poythress in the left corner — helped get Kentucky within 47-44.
"Nice to know we've got two or three guys we can go to when the game's in the balance," Calipari said.
But Cleveland State did not crack. Lewis hit a driving bank shot, then Sebastian Douglas hit a three-pointer created by good ball movement. That put the Vikings ahead 52-44 with 8:16 left.
Cleveland State led 54-44 with barely seven minutes left.
Andrew Harrison led the Kentucky charge. He threw lobs that Cauley-Stein twice dunked. His driving three-point played tied it at 54-54 with 3:55 left.
Waters credited Kentucky for making the key plays and taking advantage of what he called "undisciplined" play by his team down the stretch.
Said Waters of UK getting the victory (and avoiding an eye-catching upset), "I'm a true believer in you don't have to lose to learn."
Eastern Michigan at Kentucky
When: 4 p.m. Wednesday
TV: Live on Fox Sports South (Delayed broadcast at 6 p.m. on CWKYT-27.2)
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.