Wiedmer: This time, Cats get the best of Cards

Wiedmer: This time, Cats get the best of Cards

December 29th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

LEXINGTON, Ky. - John Calipari wrote the words on the white board inside the Kentucky locker room just prior to the No. 18 Wildcats' home game against No. 6 and defending national champion Louisville on Saturday.

"Look like a team," he wrote. "Play like a team. Fight like a team."

If it seems as if that should be easy, it hasn't been for UK's latest crop of projected one-and-done freshmen. They entered the Louisville game with three losses by a total of 14 points in 12 games. All had come to ranked foes: Michigan State, North Carolina and Baylor. All had seen the Cats tie or lead at one point or another.

But they had ultimately lost them all, and when Louisville grabbed a one-point lead with 11:01 to go after UK had led by seven, Calipari thought he might be overseeing another close defeat.

"That look," he said of at least a few of his players, "like we were going to lose again."

But then they rallied. Even with Julius Randle, Big Blue's leading scorer and rebounder for the season, sidelined by cramps most of the second half, UK stormed back to lead by as many as 10 on its way to a 73-66 victory.

"I thought we grew up today," Calipari said afterward.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino seemed to agree, saying of the winners: "They showed much more maturity today than everyone was saying."

What everyone has been saying about the nation's youngest team -- according to KenPom.com, the Wildcats are 351st of 351 NCAA Division I basketball teams in experience -- is that they're not really a team so much as a gaudy collection of individual talents who'll barely learn each other's favorite desserts or musical acts before heading off to NBA riches.

Never mind that Calipari has reached two of the last three Final Fours and won the national title in 2012 by relying heavily on freshmen. The coach's "Player First" approach has been under gentle fire of late, the argument being made that Pitino's long-practiced formula for blending experience with talented youth may work better.

After all, while UK reigned supreme two years ago, the Cards won it all last year, then welcomed back at least five key players, including Final Four MVP Luke Hancock and leading scorer Russ Smith.

Add to the fact that UK-UL is the basketball equivalent of Alabama-Auburn, complete with the shared national championship hardware, and you have some idea of the intensity present within Rupp Arena for this one.

Or as 14-year-old Louisville resident and lifelong Kentucky fan Andrew Kaelin said: "This is always the biggest game of the whole, entire season. You're always worried that your friends who cheer for the opposite team will rub it in your face if you lose."

With that in mind, 24,396 mostly blue-blanketed Wildcat fans filled Rupp, hoping Cal could whip former UK coach Pitino for the fifth time in six tries as the Kentucky coach.

And when UK led 41-36 at halftime after falling behind 8-0 to open the game, another Big Blue win in the series seemed probable. But then Randle began to cramp, the quicker Louisville guards began to blow past Cal's freshman identical twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison and Cal began to see that doubt that UK fans have witnessed too often this year down the stretch of games.

The coach even urged the doctors attending to Randle's cramping to get the three IVs he received into him a little quicker, hopeful that the 17 points the big Texan muscled home in the opening half could be at least partially reproduced in the second.

"I kept saying, 'Get ... him ... back [out there],'" Cal recalled with a grin.

But it wasn't to be. Randle never scored a point in the final period and was never on the court in the final 13 minutes. Yet Kentucky found a way, in part because Andrew Harrison had a career game at point guard (18 points, 2 assists, 1 steal) and fellow freshman James Young knocked down all three of the winner's 3-pointers, including one with 6:24 to go that negated a triple from Hancock that briefly had pulled the Cards within four at 60-56.

"Big play," Cal said. "They make a 3; now we make a 3. Big shot."

"Big defensive lapse," Pitino countered.

It was clearly a big win for a Calipari team that posted far too few of them a year ago on its way to an opening-round loss in last year's NIT.

Not that the UK coach seemed overly confident that he could sculpt a second victory over the defending champs should they meet again in the NCAA tournament, which is what happened during UK's 2012 title run.

Understandably concerned about the 14 free throws his team missed in 30 attempts, Calipari said, "If we play them again, I don't know that we could beat them again."

But Cal's Cats beat the Cards on Saturday with UK's best player sidelined for most of the final half.

And as if to recall his coach's white-board urgings before this game began, Young said, "This is just us coming together as a team, being more mature. And you're going to see much more of this in the future."

If he's right, UK and U of L just might play for a second time this year in March, when the winning fans will rub it in the faces of their losing neighbors until this time next year.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com