LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It was a Cardiac Saturday for Bluegrass basketball, and in the next-to-last weekend before March raises its maddening curtain, one of the more hopeful Saturdays of the season.
The University of Louisville got its best win of the season, a 58-57 victory at No. 7 Cincinnati on a last-second jumper by Russ Smith.
The University of Kentucky fought off LSU at home in overtime to win 77-76 on a last-second put-back by Julius Randle.
I hope everyone hugged the kids, patted the dog, called a post-game show and celebrated. It was day to celebrate.
But not too much. Amid the celebration, don't miss the red flags amid the mayhem.
We'll start with UK. The Wildcats needed overtime, and nearly got nipped in regulation by former Kentucky Mr. Basketball Anthony Hickey (who a bit-too-cavalierly tried to hit a stylish deep three instead of making a smarter play with the final shot.)
This is an LSU team that will not get to the NCAA Tournament without first winning the SEC Tournament. An LSU team that has now lost six consecutive road games in the Southeastern Conference. A 10-loss LSU team that has lost games this season to Rhode Island and Alabama. It lost by 14 in overtime at Ole Miss. It lost by 13 at Georgia, by 10 at Texas A&M and by 11 at Arkansas. None of those teams are headed for the NCAA Tournament either.
After the game, UK coach John Calipari said, "That's an NCAA Tournament game right there. That's what it's going to be like."
Well, not exactly. A tournament game is not going to be in Rupp Arena. And it's not going to be against LSU, no matter how much Calipari lobbied for them to be in the tournament.
"They beat us by 100 down there," Calipari said. Actually, five. ". . . And someone wants to question whether they're an NCAA team?"
I'm all for making strides. And I'm all for young players making big plays. And I even think Calipari did something that he should get credit for in this game. Late in the game, he scrapped his entire offense. He threw it in the trash can. He told his players, "Two passes, then drive."
LSU couldn't stop it. The Tigers fouled. They gave up layups. They gave up runners. Aaron and Andrew Harrison went strong to the basket, as did James Young who drove into the lane and was fouled, making two free throws to tie it at the end of regulation. (Yes, UK gets a favorable whistle in Rupp Arena. Everyone gets a favorable whistle at home. But Young got raked across the arm. And he made two pressure-packed free throws. He drove and was rewarded. A lesson UK should remember.)
"Drive the ball!" Calipari said he repeatedly shouted during timeouts. "Do not settle!"
They need to write that across the sneakers of UK players.
Again, UK repeatedly had chances in the first half to push its lead to double-digits, but it could not. A late four-point play left LSU down only three at halftime.
Yes, there was progress. But the progress this team is making right now -- winning games at the end against SEC competition -- is not the progress ideally it should be making. It should be graduating to putting the hammer down. That should be the emphasis the next three games -- and it's an attainable goal. Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama should be opportunities for convincing wins, and the Wildcats should go to Florida on a roll and with a feeling of nothing to lose.
It's setting up well for UK. But as fun as it is to win on a last-second put-back, the win isn't quite the sure-fire sign of progress that Calipari wants to make it. He's saying the right thing, of course. He needs to give his team the feeling of building momentum. This group might be behind schedule, but it still can beat its NCAA Tournament deadline. I'd call them the Fiddlin' Five, but that name already has been taken. They're the Freshman Five. And anyone who thinks this can't be a dangerous tournament team is mistaken. But they've played with fire quite a bit.
Remember this: The youngest team in the NCAA Tournament field has made the title game each of the past two seasons (UK in 2012, Michigan in 2013). And this young group at UK will be the youngest in the field this year.
For U of L, you can't knock a victory over a top 10 team on the road. In fact, I look at the stat sheet and I'm marveling at it a little.
The Cardinals were outrebounded 22-11 in the second half, and they allowed Cincinnati to rebound 11 of their 18 misses (15 field goal, three free throws). They shot only 11-for-22 from the free-throw line in the game. They got two points from their small forward spot (Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear).
You do those things, you're not supposed to beat a Top 10 team on the road.
So credit them for the win. More importantly, credit their defense. It was a liability a month ago. In the past 10 days, Cardinals' coach Rick Pitino has started to give it his seal of approval. He said for the first time this season, he's genuinely excited about his team.
And then, he watches it shoot free throws. We all watch the Cards shoot free throws. They made only 6 of 11 in the second half at Cincinnati. Which was an improvement on the first half.
The Cardinals have won six straight games. But in those six games, they've shot just 60.2 percent from the line (85 of 141). Heading into Saturday's win, they ranked No. 288 out of 345 NCAA Division I teams in free throw percentage. Look below them on that list, and you don't see many likely NCAA Tournament teams (ACC leader Virginia being a major exception).
One night like Saturday in the Big Dance and it's lights out, no matter how well the Cards play in those other areas. And Pitino knows it.
"That's probably the last hurdle for us," Pitino said. "We're going to cure it, though. We're going to cure it."
It's interesting, because the Cardinals have shot 72 percent from the line (54-of 75) in their four losses this season. But the shooting has gotten more ragged in the past month.
Harrell's free-throw shooting is a major problem. The U of L offense is at its best when it is running through him, but Cincinnati sent him to the line liberally. The sophomore attempted a season-high 12 free throws and made only five. His season percentage now has slipped to 46.5 percent. And he's regressed -- only 20 of 52 (38.5 percent) in conference play. His 102 attempts are third-most on the team. But Pitino has hope.
"He's very bright, like Gorgui (Dieng)," Pitino said. "If you tell him something, he can correct it."
Then Pitino had a Scarlett O'Hara moment, when it comes to free throws.
"We've got a nice basketball team," Pitino said. "If we start making our free throws, we'll be a hell of a basketball team. . . . We're going to cure that problem, I swear to God."
If the Wildcats can take another step, toward stretching out leads instead of letting opponents reel them back in, and if the Cardinals can cure their free throw frustration, this Cardiac Saturday could be the start of some heart-swelling moments come March.