Young Kentucky comes of age in Sweet 16 thriller over Louisville

Kevin Kaduk
The Dagger
Young Kentucky comes of age in Sweet 16 thriller over Louisville
Young Kentucky comes of age in Sweet 16 thriller over Louisville

INDIANAPOLIS — So this is what it looks like when Kentucky's youth and talent finally gets its legs and realizes a velocity that no coach in his right mind should want to face right now.  

Aaron Harrison calmly drains a go-ahead three-pointer and then two game-sealing free throws.

Julius Randle walks his way down the court, raising the roof for the delirious portion of the Lucas Oil Stadium dressed in Wildcat blue. 

Dakari Johnson bounds over to radio row to do a jubilant postgame interview. 

A veteran Louisville team with a recent record beyond compare heads home after landing on the wrong end of a 74-69 decision in a meeting of the last two national title winners. 

"They're going to be tough to beat," Louisville coach Rick Pitino says after the game. "Very tough to beat."

[Photos: Top Sweet 16 action from Kentucky vs. Louisville]

Now, make no mistake: The lead of this story could have well been reversed to celebrate the experience of the Cardinals and another run to the Elite Eight for Rick Pitino's squad. That's how close Louisville was to taking Friday's instant classic between the two Bluegrass State rivals in the Midwest Regional semifinal. 

And, truthfully, maybe Louisville should have won. The Cardinals led by as many as seven with 4:33 remaining, getting big three-pointers from Luke Hancock in an unhinged atmosphere that screamed Final Four a lot more than it did Sweet 16. While Kentucky dabbled with the inconsistency that defined much of its regular season, Louisville's veteran core tested and exposed the loose connections between John Calipari's collection of blue chip prospects. Hancock seemingly got James Young to foul out of the game by himself.

But the Cardinals did things they couldn't do. They went 13-of-23 from the line. They couldn't rebound when it mattered most. Kentucky sophomore Alex Poythress ate them up on the inside in crunch time. 

On the game's decisive play, they learned the lesson that Michigan seems bound to learn in Sunday's Elite Eight matchup and then maybe two other teams after that. You can't let anyone escape your notice because Calipari has stocked the roster with players capable of taking advantage of any lapse in attention.

And so there was Aaron Harrison sitting open on the left wing with 39 seconds left on the clock, ready to take a kick-out pass from a double-teamed Randle in the post.

After watching Randle and Poythress drag the 'Cats back into contention with a great performance in the paint, it was time for Harrison to burn Louisville from the outside. 

He didn't miss.

"You've got to play great defense, like we did tonight in the first half, to beat them," Pitino said. "And I don't know how many teams are capable of doing that against them, because if you do help they'll burn you like that. We shouldn't have helped on that play."

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Pitino spent a portion of his press conference lamenting opportunity lost while also pledging to be gracious in defeat. With Hancock and Russ Smith set to graduate, he said it feels like the end of an era in Louisville with two Final Fours, a national title and now this classic game in the Cardinals' scrapbook. 

Things for the Wildcats, meanwhile, may just be beginning. This season started off with talk of going 40-0, only to see the fans' hubris quickly humbled by the realities of trying to get 18-year-old high school superstars on the same page. Now they're three wins away from the national title that was preordained from them and it seems a realistic goal if their balancing act continues. 

This much, at least, is certain: We're watching one of the most entertaining NCAA runs in recent memory by one of the best collections of talent in recent memory.

Beat Michigan on Sunday and Kentucky will have topped three of the 2013 Final Four teams in succession.

Reach the 2014 Final Four and the Wildcats will have come together when it mattered most. 

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Kevin Kaduk is a writer for Yahoo Sports.. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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