BOZICH | Kentucky Halfway To Wildcats' First 6-Game Winning Streak
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (WDRB) – If Kentucky wins the 2014 NCAA basketball title, it would require the first six-game winning streak this season for John Calipari's 10-loss team.
I wonder if a team has ever won a national title without having a six-game winning streak before the NCAA Tournament began.
That's an offbeat thing to say after the Wildcats came from 13 points behind to knock Louisville out of the NCAA Tournament, 74-69, early Saturday morning, but it's time to acknowledge the crazy vibe that's percolating around this Kentucky team.
Beating unbeaten Wichita State last weekend started imaginations racing. Beating Louisville on a night when the Wildcats trailed by Cardinals by seven points with 4 ½ minutes to play and Willie Cauley-Stein parked in the locker room in street clothes with crutches only stirred more talk that it is officially time to shred all those things that you thought you knew about Kentucky.
"I'm not surprised because we've seen the potential there all year," Kentucky forward Julius Randle said. "We've finally started to put it together, just building each game."
"Of course we had, not really doubts, but we knew we just had to keep fighting," said fellow freshman Aaron Harrison. "I think we've gotten that over the last three or four weeks."
Certainly the last three. Two solid victories in the Southeastern Conference Tournament before taking Florida to the last possession in the championship game. Handling Kansas State and top-seed Wichita State in St. Louis in the Wildcats' first two NCAA Tournament games.
Toppling Louisville, the defending national champion, by outscoring the Cardinals, 15-3 over the final 4 1/2 minutes. Basketball games stretch over 40 minutes. Kentucky led for 65 seconds. It wasn't a freshman ending this time.
Only Michigan, regular-season champions of the Big Ten, can stop Kentucky from advancing to the NCAA Final Four. The championship game of the Midwest Regional will be played at 5:05 p.m. Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Don't be surprised if Kentucky, the eight-seed, opens as a two-point favorite over the Wolverines, the two-seed in this regional. That's even with Cauley-Stein unlikely to play. He left Lucas Oil Stadium in a golf cart, holding a pair of crutches in his left hand.
"Fight and win, those are the two biggest words Andrew Harrison kept saying to us on the court and in the huddles," said Dominique Hawkins, another UK freshman.
"The mood on the bench was pretty depressing in the first half because we kept doing things we weren't supposed to do. But we've grown. We've fixed all that."
You know what the Wildcats needed to fix. Start with sharing the ball and accepting that it was absolutely OK for another guy on the team to make a critical play.
Roll video of the signature play from this victory, the one that will be replayed today, tomorrow, forever. Kentucky is trailing, 68-67. There is less than a minute to play. Randle is attacking from the right wing, moving swiftly through the lane with his trademark powerful left-handed move.
Go to the rim. Shoot. Score. Or get fouled.
That's what Randle always does, right? Randle did not have an assist all night. No Kentucky player did – other than point guard Andrew Harrison.
Julius Randle did not shoot. He drew his usual double team and found Aaron Harrison in the left corner. Aaron Harrison scored. Made a three-pointer that was essentially a dagger. Kentucky never trailed again.
"I looked at going up to score but I saw him wide open," Randle said. "His man was coming in the lane to help. My biggest thing was I was just going to make a play."
"Julius drove middle and they collapsed down on him," Aaron Harrison said. "Andrew was up top. He was the easiest pass and they took him away. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and just hit me. I just got a shot in rhythm."
Make certain you also credit Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress. They are the pair that took all the minutes that had to be filled after Cauley-Stein departed with a serious injury to his left ankle seven minutes into the first half.
Johnson scored 15 points. That is as many points as Johnson has scored in a game all season. It is six more points than Johnson had scored in Kentucky's last four games.
Do not forget Poythress. There was nothing extraordinary about his numbers – six points and four rebounds. Until you look closer. Poythress scored all of his points in the final 4 ½ minutes and also added a block, a steal and a rebound during that stretch. Clutch is a word they use to describe play like that.
Calipari was barking at Poythress most of the night. At game's end, Calipari wrapped his arm around Poythress's neck in a vigorous hug.
"It's something that we've learned about this team lately," Poythress said. "Through thick and thin, we don't give up. We've got a lot of fighters on this team.
"I guess we're just trusting each other more."
Now people are wondering if this team can do something it has not done all season – win six straight games. Trust me.
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