Going into this year's Kentucky vs. Louisville matchup, I was moderately assured that the Wildcats would come out on top in the titanic struggle, evidenced by my picking UK to win by a score of 73-69 (I know I was close, but lady luck was with me). A predicted four point win, though, does not equate to bountiful confidence, something I like to have going into the UofL game. But with the contest at Rupp Arena, I felt as if the crowd would supply the players with an energy boost and added enthusiasm -- something the young 'Cats have needed for almost the entire season -- hence my picking the 'Cats to win the day, albeit by a slim margin.
Fast-forward to Saturday. Game day. Nerves begin to show up (I have no idea why, I wasn't playing or coaching), and was manifested with me searching for anything that could supply me with good luck (not that I'm at all superstitious). I decided to wear a UK pullover -- blue UK, black background -- which I was pretty sure I had never worn before for a game (a prerequisite when one is looking for a new good luck charm). One of my daughter's made me a bracelet with colored rubber bands that came in a kit Santa brought her, and she presented it to me as my "UK bracelet," so on my wrist it went.
Now properly adorned, I was ready.
I was also ready for an early UofL run, simply because the Cards are much more experienced than the 'Cats, and the bulk of the Louisville roster played on the biggest stage the sport has to offer in the last two Final Fours. I simply thought UofL would be more calm. More collected, at the game's beginning. UofL's early 8-0 run confirmed by suspicions.
Sure enough, though, the 'Cats came bouncing back on the strength of one of the great halves of basketball any UK player has ever played (considering the opponent and the stakes). Both statistically and emotionally, Julius Randle carried Kentucky for 20 minutes (with the exception of Willie Cauley-Stein grabbing every rebound in sight). Not only with his 17 points on 7-of-7 2-point shooting, but the fact that the Cardinals were so concerned with him (as they should have been), that the other 'Cats were able to do their thing a bit more freely.
At the half, I felt good. After UofL's burst to begin the game, Kentucky settled down, gathered its collective breath, and outscored the Cards 41-28 over the last 18 minutes of the half. Louisville was having no luck with the 3, and Randle was just unstoppable. Literally.
And I'm thinking, "Now that's what I'm talking about." Randle was displaying his inner beastliness, being aggressive, being THE MAN. Knowing with full confidence that no one wearing black and red had any kind of real chance of slowing him down. Demand the ball. Catch the ball. Score the ball.
That should be Julius Randle's modus operandi. And for 20 minutes on Saturday it was.
Then the cramps started. I knew something was wrong when Randle went out at the 17:55 mark of the second half. Louisville was in the midst of a 7-0 run and had tied the score at 43. Didn't seem like an opportune time to take out the best player on the floor.
Then, over the next six minutes, my initial fear was confirmed, for Randle was in and out of the game three times, and did absolutely nothing when he was on the floor. All the while, UK's first half momentum evaporated into a memory. Louisville, down 51-46 at the 12:10 mark of the second stanza, went on a 6-0 run, taking a 52-51lead, the Cards' first lead since 9:09 remained in the first half.
Then it happened. As Randle called for himself to be taken out of the game for the third and final time at the 11:01 mark, it was obvious he was very uncomfortable. A palpable sense of panic began to creep its way into my consciousness.
I'm thinking as I watch Randle limp off the hardwood, a grimace clearly scowling across his face, "He doesn't look like he's coming back any time soon ... there's only 11 minutes left to go in the game ... he's not coming back."
I didn't jump up and down, bemoaning the fate of the 'Cats. I didn't rave against the terrible luck. I simply picked up my phone, panic now in charge, and quickly texted my father, "No way we win without Randle."
And I meant it. With Randle sidelined, I didn't think UK's guards could do what John Calipari needed them to do -- take over the game. I just knew Chris Jones and Russ Smith would start popping 3-pointers like Reece Gaines and DeJuan Wheat. "These guys are streaky shooters, and Randle being gone might be the boost they need to get going," was rolling through my mind. In that moment, I simply liked UofL's guards better than UK's.
First it was Andrew Harrison who grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back up for a deuce. James Young and Andrew Harrison then connected on back-to-back drives, Harrison's resulting in a 3-point play. Aaron Harrison then contributed a layup, giving UK a 60-53 lead. Not a commanding margin, but mojo was clearly once again wearing blue, thanks to the Kentucky guards.
What was to follow was one of the most pleasurable 10 minutes of basketball I've seen in while. Not to cast stones at other UK teams, but simply to say that what I saw Saturday in the second half was something special, because to a man, and even more importantly, as a team, the 'Cats came of age and played their best 10 minutes of basketball all year.
Whether it was Andrew Harrison and his 11 second half points, or Aaron Harrison's 10 second half points (on 5-9 shooting), or James Young's six second half points (the trio accounted for 27 of UK's 32 second half points), the three oft-maligned freshman guards came to play. Came through for their team, and showed exactly what they are capable of achieving on the basketball court when dedicated to defense and to one another.
Alex Poythress was Alex Poythress; he played hard, he worked the boards, and with seven points he scored nearly three points over his average. It was Willie Cauley-Stein, along with Poythress, who expertly defended the lane, holding UofL's big men, Montrezl Harrell, Chane Behanan, Mangok Mathiang, and Stephan Van Treese to 11 points, total. For the game.
Along with everyone else in blue and white, Dominique Hawkins played with great enthusiasm, particularly when playing defense and rebounding (he had three boards), once again justifying the faith Calipari has put in him.
For the first time this year against a high quality opponent, UK finished; as in finished 'em off. Ultimately, though, they did it because they were more or less forced to. It was either kick it into that extra gear, trust one another, or be run over. It was Andrew Harrison who clearly decided to be the aggressor, taking control of the game on both ends of the floor with his size and ball handling decisions. It was Young who made a huge 3-pointer with just under six-and-a-half minutes remaining, giving UK a 63-56 lead, a lead the Cards would not penetrate the rest of the night.
Everybody contributed, and everybody trusted one another in the glowing heat of late-game pressure. That, my friends, is how teams are built.
The question remains, though. How will this still-young squad respond when Mississippi State comes to town on January 8? Nothing against MSU, but the Bulldogs aren't nearly as sexy an opponent as Louisville, especially to a teenager. Following MSU's visit the 'Cats have consecutive road games at Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
The SEC; it's a grind. And every night a UK player puts on that uniform, they have to come to play, because as Cal is fond of saying, UK is every opponent's. And that declaration is never more relevant than when the 'Cats play an SEC game.
Kentucky has to match the energy and enthusiasm of its opponent -- as it did against UofL -- or risk losing more than they should. Kentucky has to execute even when the circumstances are less than ideal -- as it did against UofL. Kentucky has to continue to trust one another -- as it did against UofL -- to fulfill the promise of its talent.
For the next few days, though, I'm not going to wonder too much about the Wildcats' future. I'll just enjoy the fact that this team won a game, against Louisville no less, that I thought they had zero chance of winning with 10 minutes left. We aren't, as sports fans, treated to that very often. It is to be savored.
And oh, by the way, my father received another text from me after the game. It read, "I've never been so happy to be wrong." And I meant it.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!