INDIANAPOLIS — Any flickering frustrations from the regular season faded away Friday night as Kentucky beat archrival Louisville 74-69 in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
All the "clutter," as Coach John Calipari called it, about six McDonald's All-Americans, a 40-0 record and what The Wall Street Journal mockingly called the construction of a Death Star.
The March 1 loss at South Carolina seemed so long ago, from a different season, as Kentucky followed up its invigorating victory over No. 1 seed Wichita State last weekend with a pulsating comeback against Louisville.
Kentucky, which will play Michigan on Sunday in the Midwest Region finals, trailed 66-59 with barely four minutes left.
Alex Poythress hadn't scored. Then he scored six points down the stretch. His dunk off an Andrew Harrison whip pass got the comeback started. His put-back/three-point play tied it with 2:11 left. His free throw with 1:26 left put UK ahead 67-66, the Cats' first lead since 2-0.
After Russ Smith hit a pull-up jumper in the lane to put Louisville ahead 68-67 with 1:09 left, Aaron Harrison hit the decisive shot. Taking a pass from Julius Randle, whose move drew defenders, Harrison swished a three-pointer from the left corner with 39.1 seconds left.
The free throw line separated the winners from the losers. U of L, which made only 13 of 23 free throws, had a chance to tie it with 14.2 seconds left. But Wayne Blackshear, a 75-percent free throw shooter, made only one of two.
UK, which made 22 of 27 from the line, clinched it when Randle and Aaron Harrison each made two of two in the final 13 seconds.
Randle, Aaron Harrison and Dakari Johnson led UK (27-10) with 15 points each. Johnson came up big in relief of Willie Cauley-Stein, who left the game in the first half with an injured ankle.
Louisville (31-6) got 23 points from Smith and 19 from Luke Hancock.
Kentucky trailed 34-31 at halftime, and had to be happy.
The Cats made only a third of their shots in the first half (10 of 30), fell behind by as much as 13 points early and saw Cauley-Stein limp off the court with 13:05 left.
Yet, Kentucky kept competing, drawing as close as within a point of Louisville down the stretch.
U of L helped Kentucky's chances by making only six of 15 free throws in the first half.
Twice inside the first eight minutes Kentucky called timeout to try to blunt Louisville's early momentum. With UK launching six three-pointers in its first 10 shots (the good perimeter shooting against Wichita State last weekend did not endure), Louisville led 18-5 early.
Smith had six of his 15 first-half points in that early breakout. Blackshear, who entered the game when Luke Hancock picked up two early fouls, capped the run by beating his man on a cut for a layup.
Randle's first points — a layup off a lob with 11:33 left — began Kentucky's long slow climb back into the game. UK's first three-pointer — by Aaron Harrison with 9:27 left — after six misses from beyond the arc gave UK renewed hope.
The Cats got within 21-16 when Smith answered with one of the season's most memorable plays. The 6-foot guard beat his man on the drive and rose for a dunk over and through UK's tall timber.
Another Smith basket off a drive — this time high off the glass — came with 30.6 seconds left and set Louisville's halftime lead.
Two minutes earlier, Kentucky had two more reasons to believe in a comeback. Montrezl Harrell, U of L's presence around the basket, picked up his second and third fouls in a 13-second span. The first came with 2:30 left while trying to defend Johnson in the post. Thirteen seconds later, Harrell was called for charging while trying to overpower Andrew Harrison.
Harrell came to the Sweet 16 having posted three straight double-doubles and four in the last six games.
Chris Jones made two free throws with 18:43 in the second half to keep Louisville ahead. That marked the first time the Cards made two of two from the line.
Kentucky tied it at 38-38 on a Randle post-up basket with 14:54 left. That marked the first time UK had not trailed since the 16:42 mark of the first half.
Louisville blunted Kentucky's momentum with three straight baskets in transition, all within 10 seconds of a UK score or turnover. That put the Cards ahead 48-42, prompting a UK time with 12:30 left.
Neither team let the other out of reach down the stretch.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.