The University of Kentucky Wildcat men’s basketball team is moving on to the Elite Eight of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. The team that lost to South Carolina. The team that lost to Arkansas twice. The team that was supposed to go 40-0, but somehow lost 10 games is moving on in the tournament after defeating the defending national champion and in-state rival University of Louisville Cardinals 74-69 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN.
Whatever the “tweak” was that head John Calipari alluded to in the lead up to the SEC Tournament, after a blowout loss to Florida to end the season, has paid dividends. After defeating the previously undefeated Wichita State Shockers in the round of 32, the young Wildcats have now defeated the favored Cardinals using the same methodology: they never gave up. Down 18-5 in the first half, the Cats dug in and chipped away at the Cardinal lead getting it down to a manageable 3 points at 34-31 at halftime. In the second half, Kentucky was down by 7 with about 4 minutes left. And fought back.
Yes, the Cats won the rebound battle (37-29) and yes, they finally hit their free throws (22-27 for 81.5%). But what they showed tonight is that they have the talent and the heart to be champions. With Willie Cauley-Stein leaving with a left ankle injury early in the first half, the frontcourt for Kentucky had to step up in his absence. And Dakari Johnson delivered, scoring 15 points and grabbing 6 rebounds. Fellow freshman Julius Randle was his usual dominant self posting another double-double (15 points, 12 rebounds).
The co-MVPs for Kentucky would be Andrew Harrison and Alex Poythress. Andrew Harrison finally seems comfortable with running the team, attacking the rim when necessary, passing to his teammates in a position for them to score and shooting his own jumpshot when necessary. His statline (14 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists and only 2 turnovers) doesn’t fully capture just how great he was against Louisville, even after falling down awkwardly on his previously hyper-extended right elbow. And with brother Aaron (15 points), the Harrison twins finished 11-12 from the free throw line. The Harrison twins have delivered on the hype.
Alex Poythress. The at once forgotten man and one of the scapegoats for the dismal 2013 campaign, played huge tonight. Like Andrew Harrison, his statline (6 points, 4 rebounds) doesn’t tell the whole story. With the Cats down 7 with 4 minutes on the clock and the season hanging in the balance, Poythress had two of the biggest plays down the stretch: his rebound and three point play that tied the game at 66 and his defense on Louisville’s Luke Hancock to force a turnover. He also added a signature dunk to attack the Cardinal zone. Coach Calipari said it after the game, “Alex Poythress won the game for us.”
So, the regular season wasn’t pretty. The young Wildcats made head-scratching plays. The Wildcats lost games that they shouldn’t. And after the South Carolina game, the season was on the verge of being lost. To his credit, John Calipari changed his strategy and approach, tweak or no tweak. And, to their credit, the guys changed. They grew up. They matured. They finally figured it out. Most importantly, these Wildcats never gave up on themselves and I’m not going to either. Go Cats. Go Big Blue.