INDIANAPOLIS — It hardly seems possible that new, unique chapters are still out there to be written and new heroes ready to take center stage, given the long, storied history of University of Kentucky basketball, but Friday’s unbelievable 74-69 win over Louisville in a Midwest Region semifinal is yet another memory to cherish for Big Blue Nation.
This coming, mind you, just a week after a Kentucky win over a previously undefeated Wichita State team that may have been as well played a contest as you’ll see anywhere, at any school, at any time.
Friday’s game vs. Louisville’s tormented Cardinals was not Wichita State quality ... there were plenty of warts, so to speak, on both sides.
But for sheer drama, you’d have to go back to, well, five days earlier in Kentucky’s 78-76 win over Wichita to find comparable suspense and intrigue.
That’s how over-the-top surprising and glorious this postseason has already been for the Wildcats, who were largely “Team Disappointment” through 26 games, and have now become, in literally two weeks time, one of the most embraceable Kentucky teams ever.
And because of that, the No. 8 seeded Wildcats move on at 27-10 to face No. 2 seed Michigan (28-8) in today’s final at 5 p.m. Michigan’s Wolverines held off No. 11 seed Tennessee (24-13), 73-71, in the other semifinal Friday.
Never give up
“We just never give up,” said Kentucky sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who did relatively nothing his first nine minutes of play on Friday, but was arguably the key figure over the last five minutes of the game when the Wildcats erased a 66-59 deficit.
“That’s something about this team that we have learned lately.
When it gets thick, we just don’t give up. We have a lot of fighters on this team. Everybody is a fighter. Everybody stepped up big when they needed to. They just didn’t give up and kept on playing.”
It was Poythress who scored on a dunk with 4:10 left to bring Kentucky within 66-61, Poythress who blocked a shot on Louisville’s ensuing possession, Poythress who came up with a steal with 2:51 left and UK trailing 66-63, Poythress with a critical rebound with 2:12 left, Poythress with a jumper and free throw that tied the game at 66 with 2:11 to go, and Poythress who hit one of two at the free throw line to put the Wildcats up 67-66 with 1:26 left — UK’s first lead since 2-0.
Then, after Louisville guard Russ Smith canned a short jumper to put the Cardinals ahead 68-67 with 1:10 left, Aaron Harrison of Kentucky brought out the dagger, hitting a 3-pointer off an assist from Julius Randle that put Kentucky on top for good, 70-68, with 39 seconds left.
“Alex Poythress won the game for us,” Calipari said. “It was unbelievable how he finished. It was his block that got a basket, and all of a sudden it’s five. And I kept telling the guys, we’re down two baskets ... just play. And we got to three points, and all of a sudden, it was just a little bit crazy.”
Calipari said Friday’s improbable win shows that all the Wildcats have grown in Poythress-like fashion recently, and that, too, was evident in this one.
Cal said that Randle’s pass to Aaron Harrison for that critical 3-point shot at the 39-second mark was another example of maturity that belongs on the Kentucky’s 2013-14 marquee.
“The biggest play that Julius made is the pass for the three,” Calipari said. “Instead of shooting it. Three weeks ago, he would have shot a hook to try to get it to the basket.”
Randle finished with a remarkably typical line, 15 points and 12 rebounds, but none of his points were bigger than the two free throws he hit with 13 seconds left to give Kentucky a 72-69 edge.
Wayne Blackshear of the Cardinals (31-6) had hit one of two free throws seconds earlier to bring Louisville within 70-69.
Louisville had one last chance to extend the game in those frantic closing seconds, but Smith missed a 3-pointer from above the key with four seconds to go, under pressure from Kentucky’s Randle.
“I came off a ball screen and looked for Luke (Hancock),” Smith said. “And then I saw he was being face guarded by (who else?) Poythress. And I just decided to take a three-pointer.”
Aaron Harrison’s two free throws with two seconds left sealed it for the Wildcats.
Adding a poignant turn to the improbability of the Kentucky victory is the fact that sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein of the Wildcats played only four minutes before leaving the game with an injured foot, and freshman swing man James Young got in early foul trouble and had a quiet nine points and one rebound in 22 minutes before fouling out with 5:32 left.
Freshman center Dakari Johnson filled Cauley-Stein’s shoes admirably, scoring 15 points — on 7 of 10 from the field — while grabbing six rebounds in 31 minutes.
Aaron Harrison also scored 15 points. Andrew Harrison added 14 points, five rebounds, seven assists and two turnovers in 38 minutes.
Poythress had six points and four boards in his 14 minutes, and freshman guard Dominique Hawkins went scoreless but played 15 minutes of solid defense.
Smith scored 23 points in his final game as a Cardinal, though he was kicking himself afterward for missing six of the 10 free throws he took — all in the first half, when Louisville led by as many as 13 points.
“Honestly, I just wish I could have hit my free throws in the first half, and we would have come up with the win,” Smith said when asked what he would regret the most about the game. “I don’t understand. I just missed my free throws in the first half, and it threw everything off.”
The Cardinals hit just 13 of 23 at the free throw line, compared to 22 of 27 for the Wildcats.
Louisville out-fought the taller Wildcats on the boards early in the game in taking the 18-5 lead, but Kentucky came back to out-rebound the Cardinals, 37-29.
Senior swing man Luke Hancock finished with 19 points for the Cardinals but was limited by foul trouble, and sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell had 15 points and eight boards.