Three Hits: Kentucky trumps Cards, rolls into Midwest final
MAR 29, 2014 3:14a ET
Here are three things we gleaned from Kentucky's 74-69 win over defending national champion Louisville, a stunning comeback victory that vaulted the 8th-seeded Wildcats to Sunday's Midwest Regional final (against Michigan):
1. Kentucky's unwitting Iron Five was amazing down the stretch
Things didn't look good for the Wildcats early on when they fell behind 18-5 and then watched shot-blocking center Willie Cauley-Stein (zero points in just four minutes) exit the court with an apparent ankle injury.
And things most certainly didn't appear well when Kentucky trailed by seven with less than five minutes left, the partial result of hitting just two shots outside the paint for the first 15-plus minutes of the second half.
But it's funny how things can turn on a dime, especially with the Cardinals (31-6 overall) committing two turnovers down the stretch and registering only three points in the final 4:33 (one field goal, one free throw).
Kentucky's final flurry began with an innocent-looking dunk from reserve Alex Poythress (six points, four rebounds). A Julius Randle layup then sliced Louisville's lead to three, setting up perhaps the game's most important sequence:
With the Wildcats possessing the ball, Randle missed a short jumper, got his own rebound and then missed a follow-up shot from two feet. That's when Poythress swooped in, amid a crowd of bigger Cardinals and Wildcats, and converted an and-one layup, along with the free throw, to knot the game at 66-all.
Had Louisville collected just one rebound during that scrum, Kentucky might have felt obliged to start fouling the opposition -- except Luke Hancock (19 points) -- in hopes of extending the game.
But with everything deadlocked, a new anxiety cloud formed over the Cardinals, who also fell to the Wildcats back on Dec. 28 (in Lexington).
Poythress's short-burst heroics aside, the Wildcats' starting five -- Randle, James Young, Dakari Johnson (15 points, six boards), Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison -- accounted for 68 of the team's 74 points; and of that group, only Young didn't log 30-plus minutes for the night.
In hindsight, things might have been different for Kentucky (27-10 overall), if Cauley-Stein had been available for the entire game. But then again ... the Wildcats might also be going home if the Cardinals hadn't booted 10 of 23 free throws.
2. Aaron Harrison's game-winning triple shall go down as one of the greatest shots in Kentucky history
It's one thing to make the basket that propels a club to the Elite Eight. It's another to do it against your sworn enemy, from beyond the arc ... and with the weight of a hoops-mad state on your youthful shoulders.
And yet, Harrison's three-pointer with 40 seconds left -- with Kentucky trailing by one -- essentially had the intrinsic pressure of some random 21-footer in mid-November. That's a scary thought, considering Harrison (53 made three-pointers all year) only connected on 3 of 13 shots against Louisville -- all from beyond the arc.
Of course, Randle (15 points, 12 rebounds) also deserves credit for the impeccable timing of his only assist.
From the right side of the court, with Randle seemingly poised for an at-close-range shot to possibly go ahead, the freshman bull-rushed to the paint and then stealthily kicked out a crisp two-handed pass to Aaron Harrison, who busted the relatively open jumper. (Kentucky now led 70-68.)
For good measure, Harrison (15 points, three steals) also made the clinching free throws with two seconds remaining.
But by then, Louisville's spirit had been broken by the double heartache of Wayne Blackshear missing a crucial free throw with 14 seconds left (two made FTs would have tied the score) ... and then Russ Smith's game-tying three falling hopelessly short of the basket roughly six seconds later.
It was a curious final shot for the Cardinals, essentially bypassing the opportunity to rub Smith off a screen or two on his way to launching a desperate, but feasible heave. Nor did they seek the guidance of Hancock -- the only Louisville shooter with multiple threes against Kentucky.
Instead, while at the top of the key and his team down three, Smith took one tentative dribble to the left and fired an off-balance floater that had no chance of finding the bottom of the net.
And therein lies the differences between Harrison and Smith: Yes, the senior outscored the freshman 23-15, but a closer look at Smith's box score reveals two ugly truths -- making just one of seven three-pointers and converting just four of 10 free throws.
How's this for odd, though: Smith didn't attempt a single free throw in the second half.
As for Harrison, of his last six games (five victories), the guard has averaged 17.3 points -- a mode of progress that includes multiple made three-pointers for each outing.
3. Michigan would have been better served playing Louisville in the finale
The above statement doesn't necessarily portend doom and gloom for the Wolverines -- who survived 11th-seeded Tennessee in Friday's other regional semifinal at Indy.
Especially if Kentucky doesn't have access to Cauley-Stein.
However, when stacking up the respective starters and key reserves for both clubs, it's hard to choose an automatic defender for Randle, the Harrison twins or James Young (nine points against Louisville).
After all, Michigan had a lot of trouble matching up with Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes (11 points, six boards), Jordan McRae (24 points, six boards) and point guard Josh Richardson (19 points).
And with the possible exception of McRae, Kentucky's quartet of Randle, Young and the Harrison twins has a stronger knack for getting to the basket -- citing baseline penetration or hellacious drives through the teeth of a defense.
As for Michigan's offense, when you're hitting double-digit threes and shooting above 50 percent from long range ... perhaps the size and girth of a prospective opponent really doesn't matter.