University of Louisville

Mark Story: Freshmen come to the rescue when Kentucky needs them most

Kentucky forward Karl-Anthony Towns celebrates a basket in the second half. Towns finished with 10 points and Kentucky won 58-50.

The University of Louisville hosted the University of Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014 at Yum Center in Louisville. 

Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Kentucky forward Karl-Anthony Towns celebrates a basket in the second half. Towns finished with 10 points and Kentucky won 58-50. The University of Louisville hosted the University of Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014 at Yum Center in Louisville. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — By the ridiculously high standards of Kentucky recruiting these past six years, UK's incoming class of 2014 — Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns and Tyler Ulis — seemed sort of middling.

In 2009, John Calipari signed the top two players — John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins — on the Rivals 150. The next year, he inked three prospects in the top 13, including Brandon Knight. The year after that, UK added the No. 2 (Anthony Davis), No. 3 (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and No. 5 players (Marquis Teague).

The 2012 class led by Nerlens Noel yielded No. 2, No. 8 and No. 14. Then the 2013 class — think Julius Randle and the Harrison twins — topped it all, with Kentucky adding four of the top 10 prospects, and six of the top 19.

So when UK's current freshmen arrived with "only" one player in the top 10 (Towns at No. 5), and "only" two in the top 20 (Lyles at No. 13), it did not set off street celebrations in Lexington.

Yet there Kentucky was Saturday, locked in a possession-by-possession slugfest with archrival Louisville.

The Cats were on an opponent's home court for the first time in 2014-15.

An electric crowd of 22,812 was rocking the KFC Yum Center with head-banging levels of noise.

For the first time in what had so far been a blitzkrieg through college basketball, No. 1 Kentucky was teetering. With only 16:12 left in the game, the Cats led 26-24.

Which is when the relatively "unheralded" UK recruiting class of 2014 rode to the Cats' rescue.

With freshmen combining to score 26 of Kentucky's 36 second-half points, UK (13-0) foiled a determined upset bid by No. 4 Louisville (11-1) and ground out a 58-50 victory. For UK and Calipari, it was the seventh win in eight games over U of L and Rick Pitino.

"I think America will learn today that it's not the hype that makes the talent," Towns said, "it's how big the heart is."

After Louisville pulled within 26-24, UK freshmen scored 16 straight points for the Cats.

Ulis, the dynamic 5-foot-9 point guard, had 12 of his 14 points after halftime. His contribution — which earned him game MVP honors from the Bluegrass Sports Commission — was crucial, because veteran UK point guard Andrew Harrison struggled (1-for-6 shooting, six turnovers, three points).

"I was more excited than nervous because it was my first away game," Ulis said. "Being a freshman I just wanted to see what the atmosphere felt like."

Towns, the 6-11, 255-pound wide body, came in one rebound (10 points, nine boards) short of a double-double. In a game where every shot, every rebound was contested, he was a second-half force (eight points, six boards after halftime).

"It was very physical. It reminded me a lot of playing overseas," said Towns, who has played with the Dominican Republic National Team.

Booker, the sweet-shooting two-man, had six of his nine points in the decisive second half.

"At halftime I kind of realized that we were only around 20 points (up 22-18) and I was like, 'It's a dogfight out there,'" Booker said. "(I was thinking) 'We just have to buy into it.'"

Lyles, a skilled 6-10 forward, chipped in six points, nine rebounds and four assists. In a first half when both teams combined to shoot 16-for-55, Lyles stood out by hitting three jump shots.

"Trey played amazing," Towns said. "Trey really set the tone for this team, and we just followed."

An Indianapolis product, Lyles picked UK after Calipari prevailed over Pitino and Louisville in a spirited recruiting battle. "He was definitely juiced," Towns said of Lyles.

Perhaps most notable of all, freshman guards Booker (28) and Ulis (26) logged 54 minutes against Louisville's withering defensive pressure.

They turned the ball over zero times.

"Pretty impressive," Calipari said.

In what can only be described as Calipari's domination of Louisville, Kentucky freshmen have stood tall repeatedly versus the Cardinals.

From John Wall's clutch play in the first meeting through Brandon Knight's 25-point-game in the Yum Center debut through Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's double-double in Rupp Arena. From Anthony Davis in the 2012 Final Four to Aaron Harrison's game winner in the 2014 round of 16, UK frosh have broken Louisville hearts.

Turns out, the current Wildcat freshmen were every bit up to the challenge of continuing that tradition.

"I like my freshmen," Calipari deadpanned.

There was much to like.

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