INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — OK, so maybe they’re not the quickest learners. Still, the kids at Kentucky figured out Louisville just in time.
Aaron Harrison hit a 3-pointer for the go-ahead score with 39 seconds left and Julius Randle made a pair of clutch free throws to lift the fantastic freshman of Kentucky to a 74-69 victory over their in-state rivals.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats (27-10) led for a grand total of 65 seconds in this Midwest Regional semifinal. They’ll play Michigan on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four.
Few expected a run this deep as this season played out and Kentucky’s five freshmen starters struggled to play a team game. But they’ve been learning slowly. Trailing by seven with 4½ minutes left, things kicked in again.
Actually, it was a sophomore, Alex Poythress, who scored five points in a 7-0 run that tied the game at 66 with 2:11 left. Then, it was the Kentucky freshmen who showed all the poise against the defending national champs, led by seniors Russ Smith (23 points) and Luke Hancock (19).
Harrison took a pass from Julius Randle and spotted up in the corner for the go-ahead shot. Both finished with 15 points, as did yet another freshman starter, Dakari Johnson.
On the next possession, Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear got fouled. The 71 percent career free throw shooter missed the first. Randle came down and made two free throws to put Kentucky ahead by three. Smith missed a tough look at a 3-pointer on the next possession and a few seconds later, the Wildcats were chest bumping and coach John Calipari was pumping his fists to a loud stadium full of blue.
This was the ultimate lesson in patience for a team that, for so long, had trouble showing any.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who fell to 11-1 in Sweet 16 games, produced a matchup zone that the Wildcats had trouble working through.
The Cards led by as many as 13 in the first half, yet went to halftime only up three despite holding Kentucky to 33 percent from the floor.
Making this win even more impressive for the Wildcats: They played almost the entire game without Willie Cauley-Stein, an NBA-caliber forward who sprained his left ankle early. And James Young, who also might go pro, fouled out with 5:32 left.
That left it to Harrison, his twin brother, Andrew (14 points) and Randle, a lottery pick in waiting who was a monster inside. He had 12 rebounds to go with the 15 points. He’s had a double-double in all three tournament games.
Now, who’s to say the Wildcats can’t go all the way?
Calipari makes no apologies for recruiting the best talent and taking his chances they’ll leave before they really set up shop at Kentucky. That strategy helped him bring the eighth national title back home two years ago. Then, Louisville won it last year. Now, Kentucky is a win away from the program’s 16th trip to the Final Four.