John Clay: Against all odds, Cats refuse to lose

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 29, 2014 

INDIANAPOLIS — So you tell me, how did they do that?

How did Kentucky win that game?

How, without Willie Cauley-Stein, who injured his ankle seven minutes into the game and was never seen again, did UK do that?

How, without James Young, who fouled out down the stretch, did UK do that?

But Kentucky did just that as Aaron Harrison nailed a cold-blooded three-pointer from the left corner with 39 seconds left and the Cats beat Louisville 74-69 on a truly freaky Friday night in a semifinal game of the Midwest Regional before nearly 42,000 inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

Then again, you could say how in the world did the Kentucky that lost to South Carolina of all teams, that stumbled so badly down the stretch, that finished the regular season by being drubbed by 19 points at Florida end up in the Elite Eight?

If that's unbelievable, then try the path Kentucky took to get there. Being the first team all season to beat Wichita State was one thing.

Beating Louisville without Cauley-Stein to swat away shots in the paint, and without Young to drill clutch shots (as he did against Wichita State), and with Kentucky trailing by seven points with 4:33 to go was something else entirely.

Truth be told, even through the bad times, Kentucky had shown fight. Even when the Cats were being drilled in Gainesville, then somehow put together a 15-0 run in the second half when all was lost.

John Calipari's club used some of that same fight Friday to rally when all seemed lost, when Louisville came out with a roundhouse right that staggered but ultimately didn't drop the Cats.

"I told them before the game you're going to get punched in the mouth and you're going to taste blood," said Calipari. "We just kept fighting."

Still, despite shooting poorly from the foul line (13 of 23 for the game), when Luke Hancock made a pair of free throws with 4:33 left, Louisville seemed in control, up 66-59.

And somehow, someway Kentucky found a way.

Alex Poythress responded with a jam at the other end to make it 66-61. Then Julius Randle scored on a drive to make it 66-63 with 3:15 remaining.

"We had been begging him to play," Calipari said. "We all know how good he is."

Then Poythress came through again, fighting and battling for a rebound he claimed and scored while being fouled. The free throw tied it at 66-66 with 2:11 left.

Another Poythress free throw at the 1:26 mark put Kentucky up 67-66.

"Alex won the game for us," Calipari said.

UK had turned up the defensive pressure, holding Louisville to just one field goal in the final 6:09, but that field goal by Russ Smith on a jumper in the lane gave U of L the lead again 68-67.

That's when Randle made one of the biggest plays on a night of big plays, driving and dishing to an open Aaron Harrison who calmly, smoothly sank the three.

"It felt pretty good leaving my hands," said Aaron later.

When Randle sank two free throws with 13 seconds remaining all was left was Louisville's last shot, a Smith jumper that glanced off the rim.

"We just had some bad breaks down the stretch and gave up offensive rebounds," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who lost a Sweet 16 game for the first time in 12 games. "We lost it at the foul line and we lost it on the backboard."

Kentucky won it. Kentucky won it when it could have thrown in the towel, given up the fight.

"We just kept swinging," said Aaron Harrison.

Now they swing into Sunday and the Midwest Region final against Michigan. A month ago, who would have believed that?

"They're going to be very tough to beat," said Pitino, "very tough to beat."

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

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