- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Here are five observations from Kentucky's 74-69 win over Louisville in the Sweet 16 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Friday night.
The rivalry delivered: With 4:33 to go, Louisville led 64-59. Both teams were tired. During timeouts, players bent over and tried to catch their breaths. That was the effect of a wild night. Louisville nearly pulled away early, but Kentucky came back. Some of the standouts on both rosters struggled but both teams found alternatives. Luke Hancock missed most of the first half with foul trouble. But he’d already recorded 19 points with four minutes to play. Kentucky didn’t quit, though. The Wildcats cut their rival’s lead to three points. With 2:22, Kentucky faced a 66-63 deficit. Then, Alex Poythress drove, scored and drew a foul. He hit the free throw. Tied game. Aaron Harrison had a chance on a fast break but missed the layup. Louisville turned the ball over on its next possession. With 1:41 to go and a shot at the Elite Eight on the line, Poythress drove again and drew another foul. He made one of two free throws to put Kentucky in the lead for the first time. Russ Smith hit a big bucket on the other end to regain the lead for Louisville. And then, Aaron Harrison hit a big 3-pointer to give Kentucky the two-point edge, 70-68 with 31.5 seconds to go. Then, Wayne Blackshear drove and drew the foul. He missed the first free throw, made the second. Julius Randle made a free throw on the other end, hit the second one too. Three-point lead for Kentucky. Smith missed the 3-pointer on the other end. Aaron Harrison sealed the win with a pair of free throws. Game over. Kentucky wins. Wow.
Foul trouble, poor free throw shooting ruins Louisville’s hot start: The Cardinals came out throwing haymakers. They were fired up and energetic. Mangok Mathiang was altering shots and really playing with passion. Louisville took an early 18-5 lead. The Cardinals controlled the game. Their matchup zone caused many problems for Kentucky, which shot just 27 percent against Louisville’s zone in the first half, per ESPN Stats and Info. But fouls and missed free throws ruined that start. Montrezl Harrell picked up three fouls by halftime. Mathiang and Hancock played 13 minutes combined in the first half with two apiece. But the Cardinals also had trouble at the charity stripe. They were just 6-for-15 from the free throw line in the first half. And just like that Kentucky had closed the gap to 34-31 by halftime. The Cardinals squandered too many opportunities to pull away.
Kentucky returns fire: A lot of young teams might have collapsed after encountering a double-digit deficit against the defending national champion. But the Wildcats weren’t intimidated by the moment. They returned fire and got back into the game. Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison both hit big shots in the first half. Randle attacked the rim. By halftime this was a battle, which is what we all expected. I'm not sure how Kentucky has grown up in recent weeks, but it has. It's just a different team. A different brand of maturity. A different focus. It took five months. Doesn’t matter. The Wildcats were ready to joust with the defending national champs in the NCAA tournament.
The Willie Cauley-Stein factor: The sophomore big man left the first half with an injury and never returned. That was a major challenge for Kentucky as it struggled to protect the rim. Not having Cauley-Stein’s ability to alter shots and disrupt offenses with his length was a blow. But the young Wildcats deserve credit for continuing to battle despite the adversity.
The background singers: The buildup to this rivalry game centered on the big names. Smith, Andrew Harrison, Randle, Harrell. They were all important. But if you watch the film, the subtle playmakers truly dictated the day. Mathiang made an early impact. Dakari Johnson made huge plays for Kentucky down the stretch. Stephan Van Treese was a critical defender for the Cardinals all night. Dominique Hawkins gave Kentucky important minutes. This wasn’t about individual matchups. This was Kentucky versus Louisville. Another classic.