LEXINGTON — With many in their own fan base circling around them hungry and restless, the Kentucky Wildcats circled the wagons and found their heart in a massive, 73-66 victory over the rival Louisville Cardinals Saturday at Rupp Arena.
Coach John Calipari’s team had largely gone through the motions through 12 previous games, still managing to win nine of them. But the 18th-ranked Wildcats knew they could not get away with that against Louisville, the nation’s sixth-ranked team and defending national champion.
“The one thing I want to tell you is, please, all this stuff about doing it this way or doing it that way, doing it the ‘Cal’ way ... there is no ‘Cal’ way,” Calipari said, referring to the flak he and his team have been catching from their fans recently about the one-and-done stuff.
“This is about these players, and about playing as a team. This team is becoming a good team. I thought we grew up today.”
But Calipari did not completely deny that some of the criticism about his team’s occasional lack of effort coming into play Saturday had merit.
“We hadn’t been a good team all year,” Calipari said. “Now, we’re starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn’t play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job.”
Especially when freshman sensation Julius Randle, a 6-9, 250-pound forward, went to the bench with major cramping issues early in the second half after almost single-handedly keeping the Cardinals at bay through the first 20 minutes. Randle poured in all 17 of his points in the first half and made a good defensive opponent look silly at times.
Without Randle, Kentucky let a 41-36 halftime edge slip away and looked disjointed, as Louisville (11-2) came back to take a 52-51 lead on a three-point play by junior point guard Chris Jones with 11:01 left.
Freshman point guard Andrew Harrison hit a layup to put UK back up, 53-52. Then, after Louisville senior guard Russ Smith hit one of two at the free throw line to tie it at 53-53, freshman swing man James Young pulled down an offensive rebound and scored a putback to give UK a 55-53 advantage.
The Wildcats did not trail again.
The 6-6 Young was superb, finishing with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. He was named the game’s most valuable player.
“When they tied it up (at 53), a couple guys’ heads went down, but we had to keep pushing forward and just keep playing,” Young said.
“I got upset when it got to 53-53 because a couple guys started to get that look like, ‘We’re going to lose,’” Calipari said. “Just play. You know, finish the game out.”
The Wildcats listened in a way they did not in losing three earlier games — to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina.
Kentucky led Louisville by a much as 68-58 with 4:04 to go, and the Cardinals did not get any closer than 71-66 with 24 ticks left on the clock.
The heroes were many for the Wildcats, as you would expect in a Randle-less second half against a team as good as coach Rick Pitino’s Cards.
Andrew Harrison had his best game of the season, finishing with 18 points and four rebounds.
Freshman two-guard Aaron Harrison had 10 points and four rebounds, and 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein added 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.
And while sophomore forward Alex Poythress contributed just seven points and five rebounds, all those points and boards seemed to come at critical times, especially when Randle was missing in action.
“To be honest, there was a point when I didn’t even notice,” Poythress said when asked about Randle’s absence. “That is just how deep our team is, and how well we are playing.”
“We still had a lot of talent on the court,” Young echoed. “We just acted like he (Randle) was still on the court.”
“I think they are a good team, and they are just going to get better and better,” Pitino said of Kentucky. “I thought their three man (James Young) played great tonight. I think Randle is terrific. He plays hard. I though the Harrisons were very much under control. They handled pressure and didn’t force things. They showed much more maturity than what everybody was saying. I was hearing all of those things, and they showed great maturity tonight.”
Pitino’s team came into this game hoping for dominating performances from its backcourt of senior Russ Smith, Jones and freshman Terry Rozier, and hoping that big men and wing players like 6-8 sophomore Montrezl Harrell, 6-6 junior Chane Behanan, 6-6 senior Luke Hancock and 6-5 junior Wayne Blackshear could contribute enough to turn back the Wildcats.
Smith and Jones scored plenty — Smith had 19 points and Jones 18 — but Kentucky made those two work hard for what they got. Jones was 7 of 13 from the field, but Smith was an uncharacteristic 7 for 20 from the outside, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range, and he missed five of his 10 free throws.
“I don’t think Russ played a particularly good game from a mental standpoint,” Pitino said. “I think he took too many ill-advised, quick shots.”
Kentucky, as expected, pretty much controlled play in the paint, out-rebounding the Cardinals 44-36. The Wildcats outscored the visitors 42-24 in the paint and held a 17-6 advantage on second-chance points.
But Louisville’s Harrell pointed to a shocking factor that should not get lost in all these numbers.
“They played with more heart than us,” said Harrell, who had just six points and four rebounds in 21 minutes. “They out-hustled us.”
“Did we look more like a basketball team today?” Calipari asked. “Here is what was on our (chalk) board today: ‘Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team.’ That was the key to the game. There was no, ‘Let’s guard the pick-and-roll.’ We have to be more like a team, and we were today.”
“It was a big win,” said Poythress. “We just have to take it from here and keep growing up.”
Kentucky’s next chance to grow is Jan. 8 when the Wildcats start Southeastern Conference play with a home game against Mississippi State.
Louisville plays its first American Athletic Conference game Tuesday night at Central Florida.
For more photos from the game, click here