INDIANAPOLIS -- Few likely expected Dominique Hawkins to even see the floor in the Sweet 16, but a conversation with his coach on Friday had him prepared.
John Calipari pulled the freshman guard aside at UK's open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium, telling Hawkins -- who hadn't played more than seven minutes in a game since Jan. 8 -- he better be ready for the challenge of shadowing one of the nation's best players.
"He basically told me, 'You know who you're going to be guarding, right, if I put you in?' " Calipari said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I know Coach.' And he told me, 'Get ready for it if I call your name. That's who you're going to be guarding.' "
That who, of course, was Louisville's Russ Smith, the 6-foot senior All-American. And with 14:34 left in the first half, Hawkins got his shot.
Forgoing any thoughts of scoring -- Hawkins didn't attempt a single field goal or even register a statistic other than a foul -- he put Smith in his crosshairs.
"My focus was on my defense," Hawkins said. "I feel like that's the best part of my game and I know I'm guarding one of the best guards in college basketball right now. I was taking it real personal. If he scored on me and I was going to be upset about it and if I defended I was going to be happy and try to do it again."
Smith, as Smith does, did his share of scoring. He poured in 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting, but Hawkins made him work hard for the 15 minutes he was on the floor.
After James Young fouled out, Hawkins played the final 5:32. UK outscored U of L 17-5 during that stretch, overcoming a seven-point deficit to advance to the Elite Eight with a 74-69 win. Smith scored just two points on 1-of-4 shooting over the final minutes, committing a crucial turnover to boot.
It was the first time Hawkins had played in crunch time in a win-or-go-home scenario since last March when he led Madison Central to the Kentucky state championship. With the Wildcats mounting their late rally, Hawkins says he called on that experience.
"You just gotta keep fighting and fighting," Hawkins said. "That's the only thing I know how to do. ... When I was in the Sweet 16, Kentucky state, I know that we were down a lot and we just kept fighting and fighting. The result will end in a win if you keep on doing that."
That's representative of the way Hawkins has approached his entire freshman season. Even as his playing time has dwindled, his mentality has remained the same. On Friday, that paid off.
"He was ready," Calipari said. "I just thought it was a better game for him than Jarrod (Polson). He's more of a pit bull. I thought he could play against those guys, and he did well."
Polson is the player who has taken Hawkins' spot in the rotation over the last two months and understands the challenged of staying tuned in when the minutes aren't coming. That's why he was so impressed by what Hawkins did on Smith.
"I can't say enough about Dominique," Polson said. "I feel like he's deserved a lot more time than he has gotten this year. But he's never complained once this whole year. For him to be able to step up and play like he did was huge for us. I'm just extremely happy for him."
That's a feeling many likely share in seeing the always-smiling Hawkins have success. Polson, however, isn't surprised as many others are that it happened on this stage.
"That's who he is," Polson said. "He's a really good defender and putting him on Russ Smith was really good for us tonight. He kind of got into him a little bit and that was good. I don't know, that's just Dominique for you. And he played well tonight."
The way things started, the way the Wildcats settled for 3-pointers, clanked them and reverted to their old ways, one could have deduced that the progress of the last few weeks had vanished with one daunting game against their archrivals.
"Just so you know, before the game, our staff talked today and we knew how this would start," Calipari said. "They're going to pee down their leg is what I said. They will pee down their leg and let's just be positive and keep them going."
The Cats, who have found their shooting stroke late in the season, went to the well one too many times in the opening minutes of Friday's Sweet 16 game, taking five 3-pointers in the opening four minutes, missing all five.
UK's reliance on perimeter shots, coupled with Louisville's efficient start, put UK in an early 18-5 hole, but the Cats never panicked.
Calipari reminded his team what Tennessee did the game before in nearly coming back from a double-digit deficit and told his players they were fine.
They responded to their head coach as they did last week when they came back from a nine-point hole against Wichita State.
"With so much adversity we've been through all year, nothing we haven't seen," Andrew Harrison said. "So we knew we were going to get him and we'd have to swing back, and we did that."
Road to Final Four runs through last year's Final Four for Cats
For a team that lacked so-called quality wins in the regular season, Kentucky has captured the two most impressive wins of the NCAA Tournament at the halfway point.
By beating Wichita State and Louisville in back-to-back games, UK has eliminated the two highest-ranked teams that are no longer alive in the tournament. The Shockers and the Cardinals were ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll coming into the Big Dance.
"I think we played a lot of tough games this year," Aaron Harrison said. "Having a tough schedule really helps us throughout this tournament because we've been through a lot and been through tough games."
But the road to the Final Four doesn't get any easier.
UK's game against Michigan on Sunday will mark the third straight matchup against a team that was in last year's Final Four. The Wolverines, seeded No. 2 in the Midwest Region, were discussed as a potential No. 1 seed before losing in the Big 10 championship.
UK capitalizes on U of L's charity
UK has been criticized for leaving points at the foul line this year, but the Cats' ability to hit their free throws vs. Louisville not only kept them in the game early when the Cardinals threatened to pull away, it helped them ice the game late.
Kentucky hit 11 of 12 free throws over the final 7:23 and 22 of 27 (81.5 percent) for the game.
Conversely, U of L made just 13 of 23 at the charity stripe, keeping UK in the game in the first half when the Cards made just 6 of 15.
Over the last two games, Kentucky has made 38 of 49 at the line (77.6 percent).
To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.