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Resilient Cats can't quite overcome themselves in loss to Louisville

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Willie Cauley-Stein had six points and six rebounds in the second half as UK's comeback bid fell short in a 80-77 loss at Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein had six points and six rebounds in the second half as UK's comeback bid fell short in a 80-77 loss at Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Considering Kentucky traveled to Louisville as underdog, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to say the annual rivalry matchup was all but over with almost 15 minutes left.

Russ Smith had just scored on a steal and breakaway layup to give the home-standing Cardinals a 17-point lead with 14:45 left. The record crowd in the KFC Yum! Center smelled blood and wanted to end UK's five-game winning streak in the series with a blowout.

The Wildcats, inexperienced as they may be, were having none of that.

Kyle Wiltjer sparked a furious rally with a pair of 3s to account for six of his 14 points. From there, UK would tread water for a few minutes before going on a 14-4 run to cut the deficit to 63-61 with 5:32 left. It may not have been the path John Calipari was expecting, but his team found itself right where he hoped it would be in the waning minutes.

"I told them all week, 'You get us close, I'll help us get over the edge. You just make this close,' " Calipari said. "And they did."

After the Cats did as he asked, Coach Cal found himself taking the blame for UK's 80-77 loss. He blamed himself for not having Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein help in-bound the ball soon enough against the Louisville press that forced 12 turnovers in the game's first 25:12, but just three the rest of the way. He blamed himself for failing to call his final timeout as the Cats struggled to set up their offense down 78-74 with the clock ticking under 30 seconds. Archie Goodwin would throw an errant pass that lead to a Chane Behanan fast-break dunk.

"I'm standing there thinking, 'Timeout,' and I didn't call it," Calipari said. "That effectively ended the game. I told them this one was on me. Hopefully I'll do a better job. Hopefully I'll help them win more games than I cause us to lose, but this one right there, that play is a coach's play."

Coach Cal's players appreciated the sentiment. All season long, he has been holding the Cats accountable for their mistakes, so they can't help but like that he's willing to do the same.

"Coach, he steps up and takes responsibility," Archie Goodwin said. "Even if he thinks it's our fault, he's going to do that."

But as much as the Cats would like to forget about their own roles in the defeat, they cannot. Goodwin can't forget about his five turnovers or his three-point first half even though he would finish with a game-high 22 points. Willie Cauley-Stein can't shake off the four free throws he missed in as many attempts even though he played an otherwise solid game in the words of his coach with six points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

"Willie I thought was good," Calipari said. "Didn't make free throws, but all new to him and I thought he did a terrific job."

Cauley-Stein was far from the only Wildcat ruing missed opportunities at the line. Five different players missed at least one free throw and UK shot 11 for 23 as a team for a season-worst 47.8 percent.

"We missed 12 free throws," Cauley-Stein said. "(Coach Cal) didn't even have to call those timeouts if make 12 free throws. The game's not even - it's a whole 'nother momentum of the game if we make our free throws and if we don't give up runners."

The free throws will sting for a while for Cauley-Stein and his teammates, but the progress they showed on Saturday could prove to be much more important as the season goes on. The fact of the matter is that the Cats - without significant contributions from Julius Mays (three points on 1-for-8 shooting) and Alex Poythress (seven points and two turnovers in 15 minutes) - took a team Calipari believes to be the favorite for the national title down to the wire on the road.

"It just shows that no matter what we do, no matter how bad we shoot or anything like that, that we can still stick with guys as long as we tough it out," Goodwin said.

Learning to "tough it out" is what the last few weeks of "Camp Cal" have been all about. Taking advantage of the break from academics, the Cats have spent nearly every waking second together either practicing or eating. Calipari wanted to take a group that seemed to take losses to Notre Dame and Baylor lying down into and mold them into one that battles tooth and nail at every juncture.

"The thing we weren't doing is we weren't fighting," Calipari said. "There was no fight in the team. There was no sense of urgency. There was today."

Ryan Harrow is a big part of that.

Since the sophomore returned to the team after an extended absence, he has taken steps forward in each game. On Saturday, he took a few big ones. Facing a defense that forces the most turnovers of any team in the country, Harrow didn't commit a single one. Coping with pressure applied by Smith and Peyton Siva, Harrow served as the primary ball handler for 39 minutes and had 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals.

"Obviously I'm growing as a player and as a point guard because I'm doing things that I've never done before, but as I keep saying, I'm not at the point that I want to be at and for the team," Harrow said. "I think that I played a big role for the team and I think that I'm playing well, but if I could play even better it would be better for all of us."

Harrow clearly absorbed the message his coach delivered postgame.

 "I grabbed him after, I said, 'This is where I wanted you at the beginning of the year,' " Calipari said. " 'Now where do we go from here? How do we build on this?' "

Calipari may have spoken those words to his emerging point guard, but they may as well have been directed at the team as a whole. With a final nonconference game vs. Eastern Michigan on Jan. 2 the only thing standing between them and Southeastern Conference play, the story of this season is very much unwritten.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, however, has an idea of how it's going to end.

"They're going to be an excellent basketball team," Pitino said. "They're going to get better and better and better and John's the right guy to get them better. He's a hell of a coach."

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