Over Kentucky’s past two games, the question lingered: When would the Wildcats play like freshmen again -- because surely if they were going to beat No. 4 Louisville in the Sweet 16, they could not afford to. And in their thrilling 74-69 win over the defending champs Friday night in Indianapolis, the Wildcats played like freshmen, all right – the kind of freshmen that are talented enough and coming together just in time to make a run at the national championship.
Down 13 points in the first half, Kentucky charged back without the services of sophomore center Willie Caulie-Stein, who suffered an ankle injury, and pulled ahead with 40 seconds remaining when freshman guard Aaron Harrison drained a three-point shot from the left corner to make the score 70-68. Louisville guard Russ Smith’s desperation three with six seconds remaining missed the mark, and Harrison grabbed the rebound and made two free throws to seal it.
After winning 9 of its final 10 regular season games, Louisville was considered a popular pick to emerge from the Midwest Region. The Cardinals looked shaky in their opening round win over No. 13 seed Manhattan, then handled No. 5 seed Saint Louis two days later, setting the stage for Friday night’s big Bluegrass battle. Kentucky, meanwhile, was inconsistent for the balance of the regular season and suffered some baffling losses, but seemed to find its stride in the tournament, beating No. 9 Kansas State in the round of 64 and knocking off No. 1 seed Wichita State in the round of 32 two days later. The Wildcats’ recent surge inspired confidence they were congealing into the dominant team many believed they could be in the preseason, and on Friday night, Kentucky looked the part of title contender.
After failing to score a field goal for six minutes and falling behind by double digits midway through the first half, Kentucky settled in. Forward Julius Randle scored nine points and grabbed nine rebounds and the Harrison twins combined for 11 points as the Wildcats pulled within three by halftime. Cardinals forward Luke Hancock, the 2013 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, scored 14 points after the break. But in the end, Kentucky’s balanced attack – four Wildcats starters scored in double digits and the other, guard James Young, had nine points – was too much for the reigning national champions to overcome.
Kentucky will face No. 2 seed Michigan, who beat No. 11 seed Tennessee Friday night, in an Elite 8 matchup on Sunday.
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