John Clay: Quality win shows these Cats have got it together

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 23, 2014 

ST. LOUIS — You wanted togetherness.

Kentucky gave you togetherness. Four players in double figures. Julius Randle dished six assists. James Young contributed clutch big-time buckets. Aaron Harrison banked in an amazing three-pointer.

The head coach said afterward that in his mind the biggest play in the entire wonderful, beautiful, enjoyable game was Dakari Johnson's rebound off a missed free throw. Come together, right now? Cats did.

You wanted grit.

Kentucky gave you grit. Andrew Harrison played through a painful right elbow on the way to a team-high 20 points. Randle bulled his way to another double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds). The Cats took three-point daggers from Wichita State's magnificent Cleanthony Early (31 points) and refused to blink.

You wanted emotion.

Kentucky gave you emotion. The team once known for frowns and pouts bounded off the Scottrade Center court full of twists and shouts, arms raised to the roof after an epic 78-76 win over previously unbeaten Wichita State in a great college basketball game, maybe the best Round of 32 NCAA Tournament game you're ever going to see.

"I hope that goes down as a great one," said Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, and he was the losing coach. "I am not ashamed to come out on the losing end."

"You should know this was an Elite Eight game," John Calipari, the winning coach said afterward. "The winner should have gone to the Final Four."

Instead, the winner advances to Indianapolis for a Sweet 16 matchup with, you know who, Louisville on Friday night at the Lucas Oil Stadium in the second NCAA Tournament matchup in the past three years.

Almost forgot: Friday features the two most recent NCAA champions.

We hit the pause button here for a knock-your-socks-off stat: Rick Pitino and John Calipari will enter Friday night each on an eight-game NCAA Tournament win streak, with each having won 12 of his last 13 tournament games. Calipari's streak isn't continuous, but you get the drift.

Oh yeah, there was one more thing you wanted: You wanted this Kentucky team to finally win a game against a truly good team.

Post-game question for Calipari: "If I told you before the game that Wichita State was going to shoot 55 percent and make 10 of 21 threes, would you have thought you won?"

Calipari: "I would have said, 'It was a heck of a year.'"

Instead, it was a heck of an effort by a team that finally came together at just the right time because the task at hand required nothing short of exactly that.

Wichita State proved it deserved its No. 1 seed, carving up Kentucky's defense through sustained segments. The Shockers shot 55 percent, for heaven's sakes.

At times, Early was clearly the best player on the floor, hitting 12 of 17 shots, including four three-pointers.

Teammate Ron Baker, he of the mop-top hair and the Kentucky cousins (Frankfort), added 20 points, Baker himself nailing four threes, including a bank shot of his own with 29 seconds left to bring Wichita State within one at 75-74.

In the post-game handshake line, Andrew Harrison told Baker, "You're a bad, bad, bad boy." Baker said, "I told him the same."

On the flip side, Kentucky finally showed it was worthy of those crazy pre-season expectations. The Cats just needed a little longer than anyone would have wanted to get there.

"They are now putting themselves in a position where they're accepting roles how they have to play," Calipari said afterward. "Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they're playing better and more confident."

Truth be told, people really wanted just one thing from this young Kentucky basketball team: People just wanted to see these guys smile.

Be it the hype or the expectations or the pressure or the criticism — or the youth — but the Cats never really looked like they were enjoying themselves, or each other, at least until the SEC Tournament last week, when you could start to see the makings of what looked like something starting to jell.

Then Sunday, when they needed to most, the pieces all fell together.

"We just felt good beating a great team," said Andrew Harrison. "We just enjoyed the game."

"Everybody," said Julius Randle, "was happy."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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