Kentucky celebrated knocking one-seed Wichita State out of the NCAA Tournament. (AP Photo.)
ST. LOUIS (WDRB) – Put the Louisville talk on hold.
Make your plans to get to Indianapolis Friday when Louisville and Kentucky play in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. Make a note that Kentucky beat the Cardinals when they played in December. Stir the usual love between John Calipari and Rick Pitino.
But this day belongs to Kentucky.
The scoreboard confirmed that. Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76. The box score said there were 14 lead changes, although I wonder if that was actually 14 per minute. Up-and-down. Back-and-forth. Big shot followed by bigger shot. No time for anybody to flinch.
"There was 15 minutes left and it felt like there was 30 seconds and you were up by one," UK center Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It was a tight game.
"I remember when I was subbing in for Alex (Poythress). He came over and I said, ‘Bro, I do not like this. It's too hairy right now, especially when it's the last shot and your season is on the line with it.' "
This day belongs to Kentucky. The 10-loss Wildcats became first team to knock a Number One seed out of this NCAA Tournament. If you beat a team that nobody has beaten this season, you have earned your thunderous ovation. For a day the Wildcats were an eight-seed that played like a one-seed.
The day belongs to John Calipari, the UK coach. At least publicly, Calipari never lost faith in his team. He tried different lineups. He tried different strategies. He tried getting thrown out a game. He tried tweaks. He tried longer practices. And he finally got his team to play the way the world expected they were going to play in November.
Persistent. Poised. Precise. Prepared.
Remember the Kentucky team that could not defend South Carolina or Arkansas? Kentucky played defense when it mattered Sunday. Wichita State had the ball near midcourt with three seconds to play.
The Shockers wanted to get the ball to Cleanthony Early. He had already scored 31. They couldn't. The second option was Ron Baker, who had already scored 20. Baker was not open for a second either.
So the ball went to Fred VanVleet, the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year but only the third option on his play. VanVleet had a reasonably open three-point shot. All 19,676 people in the Scottrade Center inhaled. VanVleet missed. It was not close.
This Kentucky team celebrated with more joy than it has shown all season. Dancing. Hugging. Screaming. Jumping.
"If wins are relief, it's time for me to retire," Calipari said. "This was great joy in seeing a group of young me come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I'd hoped.
"I told them after the game, ‘I've been hard on you like I've been with every team. It's just been a longer process with you guys'
"But at the end of the day you are seeing that they understand what's acceptable and what's not acceptable."
This win belonged to the Harrison Twins. They arrived in Lexington last summer dragging their press clippings behind them. They've been good and occasionally great when the world expected them to be great and occasionally greater.
On Sunday the twins played like they were triplets. All the wise guys were convinced that if Wichita State had an edge over Kentucky it was in the backcourt. All the wise guys were wrong.
An elbow injury almost forced Andrew to miss this game. He pulled a blue sleeve on his right (shooting) arm and looked tentative in warm-ups.
"I wasn't going to play at first, but I felt like I just had to," Andrew Harrison said. "I fought through it. The elbow, once you get your adrenaline flowing, it felt fine, but it was still a little painful."
Andrew Harrison eased his pain with 20 points, making six of nine shots. His twin eased it even more by adding 19, hitting four three-pointers. Don't forget the 13 points from James Young. That included the biggest of all of Kentucky's big shots – a three-pointer that pushed the Wildcats ahead to stay, 73-71, with 1:41 to play.
Kentucky's three guards outscored Wichita State's three guards 52-29. So much for the Shockers having a major advantage in the backcourt.
Julius Randle also deserves a paragraph. On a weekend where Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins (4 points Sunday for Kansas) departed the tournament quickly, Randle played like a guy who was not ready to leave for the NBA. He scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half and also contributed 10 rebounds.
"He was a beast," Alex Poythress said. "He started it, really. He started that surge, got a lot of rebounds, put backs, and ones. He really played big today."
The last possession was a five-guy thing. No shot for Anthony. No shot for Baker. VanVleet got the ball with Aaron Harrison on one side and Cauley-Stein in front of him. Cauley-Stein was not convinced the shot would miss.
"I was like if this dude gets a clean look, it's going bottoms," Cauley-Stein said. "When it was wide right, I was like, Oh my gosh, that's crazy. I don't know how he missed that.' "
Now, one word about Louisville?
"I have no clue," Cauley-Stein said. "I'll worry about it when it gets there. I'm just going to try to enjoy this."