If ever these Kentucky Wildcats were going to take the next step in their evolution, it was now, in the heart of another classic Dream Game matchup, with the game teetering back and forth.
No. 18/18 UK, in search of its first win over a top-25 opponent this season, got the marquee victory it's been looking for and maybe quite a bit more in a thrilling 73-66 victory over its archrival, No. 6/4 Louisville, on Saturday in front of a season-high 24,396 boisterous fans at Rupp Arena.
"We grew up today," John Calipari said.
They grew up together.
A day earlier, Coach Cal said his players would have to look like a team to overcome the defending national champions' relentless pressure. He told his team the same thing in the pregame meeting, ditching his normal basketball-centered keys for three all-encompassing lessons instead.
On the whiteboard, Calipari wrote: Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team.
"There was no, let's guard your pick and roll," Coach Cal said. "Let's do it, just the team."
Perhaps for the first time this season, the Cats (10-3) did all three.
"Big game for us," said freshman guard James Young, who was named the game's most valuable player by the Bluegrass Sports Commission after recording his first career double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds). "We wanted to come out and show everybody that we're a good team and we're starting to mature a little bit. That's what we did."
It took an injury to their best player to bring out the best in Kentucky.
Julius Randle looked unstoppable during the first half, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, providing the Cats with a 41-36 lead. Louisville's Chris Jones kept the Cardinals close with a 15 first-half points, but UK dominated the glass in the first 20 minutes (25-14), broke U of L's pressure and answered an 8-0 Cardinal run to start the game.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly in a crazed, raucous atmosphere at Rupp Arena until Randle came up limping minutes into the second half. The freshman forward, who had already reached double-figure scoring for the 13th consecutive game, left the floor and headed to the locker room to get treatment for the cramping.
Randle re-entered the game twice over the next several minutes, but both times, unable to hardly move, he had to take himself out.
"They gave him like three bags of IV and the doc was squeezing it in to try to get him in because I was saying, 'Get him back,' " Calipari said.
Randle never came back, and when he left the floor for good at the 11:01 mark and Louisville regained the lead, the Cats' chances at a much-needed quality win appeared to be slipping away.
"I didn't even recognize he wasn't there," Coach Cal said. "I just coached the game. We have enough guys."
Instead of wilting, the rest of the guys answered with a game-defining - perhaps season-defining - 15-5 run. UK led 66-56 at that point with 5:21 left in the game, and outside of several nerve-wracking misses at the free-throw line in the final moments, the Cats never looked back.
"I feel like we took some punches with Julius going down and stuff," Andrew Harrison said. "It just showed our resilience and that we can do anything."
Harrison, who has been criticized at times this season for his inconsistent play and poor body language, was at his best when UK needed him the most in the second half. As U of L slowed the tempo down and Randle sat back in the locker room, Harrison steadied the offense and came up with arguably the game's best play, a sweet spin move off the baseline for an old-fashioned 3-point play and a 58-53 lead.
The freshman point guard scored 11 second-half points as momentum was swinging, giving him a career-high 18 points.
"That's just showing how much heart this team has," Harrison said. "I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that, but we knew we would win this game. Going against a great team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it."
Alex Poythress played a huge role off the bench in filling in for Randle. The sophomore forward scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds while providing the exclamation point with a two-hand dunk with 1:41 to play.
"Alex was unbelievable, but he's been doing it in practice," Coach Cal said. "He's never been like this. And I thought he was great."
No surprise, the dunk materialized because of a baseline pass from Harrison.
"He could have tried to shoot that," Calipari said. "That dunk basically put it to 10 and kind of put it out of reach."
Harrison turned the ball over just three times against arguably the nation's best defensive team. As a whole, the Cats committed just 11 turnovers and held a plus-two turnover margin against the Cardinals', who entered the matchup with the nation's top turnover margin.
Calipari said his team's whole focus in practice this week was avoiding U of L's runs by hanging on to the ball.
"If you cannot negate the press and they are getting steals and dunks and 3s and all that, you are not going to beat them," Coach Cal said. "They are going to beat you by 25. That's what we tried to do, and I thought the guys did a pretty good job of it."
Young, who hit all three of UK's 3-pointers, called the victory a turning point for the young and learning Kentucky group.
"From here on out, we're going to be a really good team and we're just going to fight the whole game and not take quarters off and plays off and just keep fighting," Young said.
To guard against complacency, Calipari said his players will get no break during a long, 10-day stretch without any games. The Cats will be up at 6 p.m. Sunday for the start of Camp Cal.
The way Calipari sees it, the growth of this team has only just begun.
"This team is becoming a good team," said Calipari, who improved to 5-1 against Louisville as UK's head coach. "We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job."