All season long it looked like talent wasn’t going to be enough for this Kentucky team, and their inexperience and coaching will mean a disappointing and early finish to the tournament. But they’re leaping over every hurdle, beating state rival Louisville 74-69 to make it into the Elite Eight with big performances from Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson.
The number one team in preseason had a rough time in the SEC, which landed them a number 8 seed in the tournament. Too low? In hindsight, everyone is a genius, and say it was wrong. They’ve taken down a #1 seed Wichita State and now their biggest rivals, in a game that had the entire state of Kentucky on the edge of their seats, who many thought were much better than simply a #4 team.
Louisivlle had a 15 points led in the first half. They also held a 7-point lead with 4:30 minutes left in the game. Their experience, their defense and very dominant performances from Russ Smith (23 points), Luke Hanckock (19 points) and Montrezl Harrell (15 points) seemed to be taking them through into the Elite Eight, with Rick Pitino never tasting defeat when he takes his team to this stage.
But John Calipari hasn’t lost an NCAA tournament game since 2011 (his team didn’t make it in last season). Alex Poythress happened late in the game. Kentucky went on a 7-0 run, and the Sophomore (Something rare in a Kentucky team) who took a huge gamble by staying on for another season, scored five of those points and added a huge block on Russ Smith, leading to a 66-66 tie. From there Louisiville found it difficult to score baskets, while Kentucky got ahead by crashing the boards and playing great defense.
Aaron Harrison, who was having a very rough shooting night, hit a big three pointer from the corner, and from there Kentucky didn’t relinquish the lead. Louisville missed a couple of free throws and Russ Smith made one last attempt from deep to save the season but missed, in a game in which he simply couldn’t connect at all from deep, finishing with a 1-of-7.
Kentucky grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in the game, including five by Julius Randle. The basketball, as usual, wasn’t smart from the Freshman group, but it’s about making the right plays with the game is on the line and for the second straight time, it was exactly what happened for a team not a lot of people expected to make it this far. The big difference from the regular season has been their performance in the “clutch”.
In their last two games, with five minutes left and the score being within five points, Kentucky are shooting 56% from the field and haven’t committed a single turnover. They outscored Louisville and Wichita State by 12 points, while being outscored in those situations in the regular season by 13 points. That makes a world of a difference.
I told them before the game, you’ll get punched in the mouth and you’re going to taste blood. You can fight or you can brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They finally have surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It’s just taken a long time.