Kentucky's ability to 'keep fighting' delivers another epic comeback

broberts@herald-leader.comMarch 30, 2014 

INDIANAPOLIS — Three times in seven days, Kentucky's season was on the brink.

The Cats fell behind by at least nine points in each game, all before halftime, and all against teams that were in the Final Four a year ago.

It was nine points against Wichita State, but they worked their way back. It was 13 points against Louisville, but UK somehow found a way.

On Sunday, it was the Michigan Wolverines that led 32-22 with five minutes left in the first half. UK chipped away at that lead over those final five minutes before halftime. Julius Randle tied it at 37 with a jumper before the buzzer.

The Cats won, 75-72. Three Final Four teams conquered. One Final Four ticket punched.

"The games were epic games. All of them," UK Coach John Calipari said. "And they — I hate to say this — they play better when they're down. I don't know why. They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their neck. And they want to win. They have a will to win."

When Andrew Harrison returned to the UK locker room after Friday night's comeback victory over Louisville, he said that he and his teammates were "kind of comfortable" playing from behind.

"I said that?" Harrison said Sunday. "I don't know what I was saying. I'd rather be up by 20 any day. But at the same time, I'm not panicking when we're down. You just know you have to ... just fight."

Everyone in that UK locker room Sunday agreed that they didn't "just fight" when met with similar circumstances early in the season.

There was panic. There was indecision. There was a what-do-we-do-now feeling that most of these players — these high school superstars who never knew how hard this would be — had never experienced before.

"Early in the season, to be honest, I think we probably gave up in some games," Dakari Johnson said.

Not anymore.

On Sunday, and Friday, and last weekend against Wichita State, these Cats clawed back.

None of the eight UK players who played Sunday night — one sophomore and seven freshmen — had ever been in an NCAA Tournament game until March 21, nine days before they came together to claim a spot in the Final Four.

They experienced growing pains against Michigan State and Baylor and North Carolina. They endured disappointment in several conference games they were supposed to win but didn't.

Those bad times all had a part in building a pretty good basketball team.

These Wildcats grew up together, and now they get to play on.

"The whole thing about building a team, especially young guys — it's a process," Calipari said. "And you cannot skip steps. You want to skip steps, but you can't."

Yes, Andrew Harrison would rather be up by 20 points in the first half against Final Four opponent Wisconsin on Saturday night. If that doesn't happen, so be it.

This Kentucky team — ranked No. 1 in October despite proving nothing — was written off before they ever hit an NCAA Tournament court. They were called disappointments and busts and undraftable.

After all of that, a few points to make up with more than a half to do it doesn't seem like much.

"It's a basketball game," Harrison said. "All of the stuff we've been through this year, a deficit is just a basketball game. You have to think about it like that. Keep fighting and keep playing."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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