At the lowest point in Kentucky's season – an embarrassing loss to lowly South Carolina almost four weeks ago – freshman guard Aaron Harrison made an improbable prediction.
"We know what we can do, and it’s going to be a great story," Harrison said.
If Harrison seemed overly optimistic at the time, he looks downright clairvoyant now.
Harrison sank a go-ahead corner 3-pointer off a beautiful feed from a spinning Julius Randle to give Kentucky a two-point lead over rival Louisville with 40 seconds to play. The eighth-seeded Wildcats made that stand up, upsetting the fourth-seeded Cardinals 74-69 to advance to the Elite Eight for the fourth time in five seasons under John Calipari.
Louisville had two chances to preserve its quest for a third straight Final Four and a second straight national title, but the Cardinals failed to come through either time. First, a driving Wayne Blackshear drew a foul on Randle with 14 seconds to go but split a fair of free throws. Then, after a pair of foul shots from Randle extended Kentucky's lead to three, Russ Smith tried a 3-pointer over Randle's outstretched hands, but it barely grazed the front rim.
Kentucky's victory sets up an Elite Eight matchup with Michigan and keeps alive the Wildcats' bid to redeem themselves for a disappointing regular season that began amid talk of a 40-0 record. A talent-laden Kentucky team lost 10 regular season games and limped into the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed, but the Wildcats atoned for those shortcomings in the postseason by handing top-seeded Wichita State its only loss and sending the defending national champs home in anguish.
For Louisville, Rick Pitino's first-ever Sweet 16 loss was also one of the more disappointing setbacks of his illustrious career. Despite 23 points from Smith, 19 from Luke Hancock and 15 from Montrezl Harrell, the Cardinals couldn't hold leads of 13 points in the first half and seven with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
If the prevailing question entering the glamour game of the Sweet 16 was whether Kentucky could sustain its high level of play from last Sunday's upset of Wichita State, the early answer appeared to be a resounding no. The Wildcats fell behind 18-5, missing their first six threes, turning the ball over four times and forcing Calipari to call a series of rapid-fire timeouts.
Adding to Kentucky's woes was the loss of one of its few key returners from a year ago. Seven-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein limped off the floor early in the first half with an ankle injury that prevented him from returning to the game.
What sparked Kentucky's comeback was a combination of inspired play from its freshmen, foul trouble for the Louisville big men and inept free throw shooting from the Cardinals.
Once Harrell picked up a third foul late in the first half and Stephan Van Treese got his second, Louisville could no longer extend its defense as far and gamble for steals because it left its big men susceptible to more fouls defending the rim. Furthermore, the Cardinals only made 13 of 23 free throws at the other end, a glaring statistic made more egregious by Blackshear's key miss.
Credit Kentucky for remaining aggressive and for persevering despite the early adversity. Randle had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Harrison sank a trio of huge threes and center Dakari Johnson stepped up with Cauley-Stein sidelined, tying his season-high with 15 points and adding six rebounds.
Throughout the regular season, Kentucky showed flashes of the promise that made it the near-unanimous preseason No. 1 but the Wildcats seldom sustained it long enough to give their fans much hope of a Final Four or a national championship.
They lost to the three best non-league foes they faced besides Louisville. They got swept decisively by Florida. They also suffered bad losses to non-NCAA tournament teams Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina.
All that could easily be the set-up to an unlikely redemption tale, however, if Kentucky stays on this roll. In the words of Aaron Harrison, it could be a great story.
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- Sports & Recreation
- Aaron Harrison
- Julius Randle