INDIANAPOLIS — When his team missed 3-point shots, failed to get stops defensively and fell behind 18-5 Friday night, Kentucky coach John Calipari offered just a few words of advice to his team.
“Just play,” he said.
And play, the Wildcats did. All the way to a surprising appearance in the Midwest Region championship game.
Guard Aaron Harrison nailed a 3-pointer with 39.1 seconds left to give No. 8 Kentucky the lead for good as it eliminated defending national champion Louisville 74-69, a doubly-sweet win given that it came against its hated commonwealth rivals.
The Wildcats (27-10) will meet Michigan, a 73-71 winner over Tennessee, Sunday with a trip to next weekend’s national semifinals on the line. Few could have seen that as a possibility after they mixed good games with bad during an inconsistent regular season.
But Kentucky has suddenly cohered into a title contender, its five starting freshmen having suddenly shelved individual agendas in favor of team play. Harrison’s go-ahead bucket was the prime example of that change.
Forward Julius Randle spun into the lane and found multiple defenders waiting for him. Instead of forcing a tough shot, he calmly whipped a pass to Harrison, who confidently stepped into a 22-footer from the left corner.
“He would have shot a hook three weeks ago,” Calipari said of Randle. “Now they’ve surrendered to the team. It’s all about helping your teammate get better and winning games.”
The No. 4 Cardinals (31-6) had a chance to tie it when guard Wayne Blackshear was fouled by Randle with 14.2 seconds left, but he made just one of two free throws.
After Randle sank two foul shots with 13.0 seconds remaining, Smith came up short on a fade-away 3. Harrison iced it with two foul shots with 2.3 seconds left to cap a game-ending 15-3 run.
“I came off a ball-screen,” Smith said of his last shot. “I looked for (guard) Luke (Hancock), but he was face-guarded. So I took the 3, and just missed.”
Smith led all scorers with 23 points, 15 in the first half, while Hancock scored 14 of his 19 after halftime. Forward Montrezl Harrell added 15 points and eight rebounds before fouling out with 1:26 left in the game.
Louisville led almost the entire game, establishing an 18-5 advantage before the second TV timeout and coming up with all the right answers when the Wildcats clawed back into contention.
But sketchy foul shooting — the Cardinals were 6-for-15 in the first half and 13-for-23 for the game — and getting outrebounded 37-29 proved to be costly.
“We lost it on the backboard and at the foul line,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “You can’t miss as many free throws as we missed. I thought we executed well most of the night, but the major factor was Randle on the backboard.”
Randle hauled in a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with his 15 points for his third straight double-double. Center Dakari Johnson, who played more than usual after backup Willie Cauley-Stein went down early with an apparent leg injury, and Harrison each added 15 points. Guard Andrew Harrison contributed 14.
Reserve forward Alex Poythress added six big points in the last four minutes, including a 3-point play with 2:13 left that tied the game at 66. He and Kentucky now try for an unlikely regional title.
“We’ve got to take care of business Sunday,” he said.
NOTES: Entering the NCAA Tournament, only three Kentucky players — guards Jon Hood, Brian Long and Jarrod Polson — had played in the tournament. Their combined experience was 10 minutes. … This is the sixth meeting between the Wildcats and Louisville in the tournament, with Kentucky owning a 3-2 advantage. … The Cardinals’ third-round win last Saturday over Saint Louis was the 50th NCAA Tournament win for coach Rick Pitino, ranking him fourth among active coaches.
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