ST. LOUIS — Kentucky's aim to shock the world in this NCAA Tournament must wait until Sunday's game against undefeated Wichita State.
For the world still awake when Kentucky played Kansas State late Friday night, the surprise of a big UK splash this post-season remains intact.
UK beat K-State 56-49 in a game that was more lullaby than tantalizing prelude to an unlikely tournament run.
Kentucky, 25-10, led the final 32 minutes. But the Cats never led or played comfortably. Wichita State, which improved to 35-0 by routing Cal Poly 64-37 earlier in the night, figured to remain a solid favorite to advance to the Sweet 16 round in Indianapolis later this week.
A man-sized second half by Julius Randle helped propel Kentucky past Kansas State in a game pitting the eight- and nine-seeds in Midwest Region. In posting his 21st double-double (and seventh straight), the freshman forward scored 13 of his 19 points and grabbed nine of his 15 rebounds.
That not only won the game, but kept alive Kentucky's ever-blue hopes of being a contender after going 1-6 against ranked teams in the regular season.
"I think a lot of the talk is we're too young and we can't do it," Willie Cauley-Stein said prior to UK playing unranked Kansas State. " ... We have a chance to do something special."
Just playing in the NCAA Tournament seemed special after Kentucky's exile to the NIT last March.
"You grow up expecting to play in this tournament," Cauley-Stein said. "Once you get here, it's kind of surreal."
Randle, who labored through the first half (six points, six rebounds), expected a physical battle.
"People are out there fighting for their lives trying to advance," he said Thursday. "That's what it comes down to (against Kansas State) or any game. ...
"We have the size, the athletic ability, but at the end of the day, advantages don't matter. You're going to fight like crazy, defend and play (as a) team. That's your advantage."
Thomas Gipson, who all but disappeared in the second half, had 10 points and seven rebounds.
Kansas State's season ended with a 20-13 record. Freshman Marcus Foster led K-State with 15 points.
Neither team shot well in the first half. But Kentucky rode board work, shot-blocking and opportunistic transition offense to a 29-23 halftime lead.
UK made only two of its first 13 shots in falling behind early. Two of the misses were three-pointers by Randle, who had taken more than one shot from beyond the arc only once all season (two against Tennessee on Jan. 18).
A brief flurry of three-pointers — four in about five minutes — fueled a 14-2 run that put the Cats ahead 19-12.
Kentucky's lead reached its zenith when Randle, returning to form, dunked emphatically as the trailer on a fast-break. That put the Cats ahead 29-17 with 2:25 left.
Kansas State, which came into the game billed as a team almost solely reliant on defense, made only five of 22 shots after beginning the game making its first three shots.
But K-State scored the final six points of the half.
Kentucky did not score after Randle's dunk. With the lead down to 29-23, the Cats called timeout with 31.7 seconds left to plot what could have been the final shot of the half. But Andrew Harrison failed to hit the rim on a heavily-contested floater. That gave K-State a chance for a half-court heave in the final second. Like 34 of the previous 53 shots in the half, it missed.
UK's 9-for-27 shooting marked its fifth-worst accuracy for a first half this season.
Ironically, scoring in the half began before the opening tap. Because walk-on Brian Rohleder dunked during warmups, he was assessed an administrative technical foul, which did not count as a personal foul nor against K-State's team total.
Andrew Harrison made one of two technical free throws to give Kentucky a point prior to the opening tap.
Kansas State got as close as 35-33 early in the second half. Young answered with a pull-up jumper.
With Kentucky ahead 44-38, Randle muscled his way to a put-back at the 8:05 mark.
Not that Kentucky turned the corner or jumped the shark or whatever other cliché you prefer.
A same old-same-old moment came with 1:14 left when Andrew Harrison frowned because the referees called a foul.
UK Coach John Calipari noticed and could be heard yelling, "Stop making faces!!!"
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.