Weight Lifter: UK Knocks Off Undefeated Wichita State in Classic

March 23, 2014

Kentucky-Louisville Set for 9:45 p.m. ET; Ticket Information

By Eric Lindsey, CoachCal.com

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ST. LOUIS - The shot was off, the weight was lifted and the perfection was over.

When Fred VanVleet's 3-point attempt bounced off the backboard and dropped harmlessly to the floor, the disappointment of Kentucky's regular season, with one swift, emphatic and stunning performance on Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, suddenly felt like it had vanished.

"It felt like five million pounds off our shoulders when the buzzer went off," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It was just a good feeling."

With a 78-76 victory over top-seeded Wichita State on Sunday in a game for the ages, UK has not only erased the frustration of the regular season, it set up a chance to write one heck of an ending. The Wildcats (26-10), in ironic, almost poetic fashion given the preseason expectations that were thrown on this group, ended the Shockers' bid for perfection at 35-1.

They did so with their gutsiest performance of the season in the best game of the tournament.

"Heck of a game," John Calipari said. "Really proud of our guys hanging in there and fighting. They never gave up. Wichita State never gave up and had their last chance to win the game. Just proud of the guys."

The Wildcats, who are headed to their fourth Sweet 16 in five years under Coach Cal, stormed the court in celebration as the buzzer went off at the Scottrade Center.

The game warranted it.

Set up with tantalizing storylines (undefeated vs. preseason hopes of perfection), drastic backgrounds (big, bad Kentucky vs. a Missouri Valley Conference school), and contrasts in age and experience, Sunday's UK-Wichita State matchup was billed by some as the best round-of-32 game ever.

Somehow, someway, it actually lived up to the hype.

"This was an Elite Eight game," Calipari said. "The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That's what this was."

Kentucky will have to settle for a reward of a matchup vs. archrival Louisville in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis (more on that later), but the Cats will take it after the way things appeared to be headed.

After Wichita State took a 37-31 lead into the halftime locker room and opened the second half with a 3-pointer, Julius Randle shook out of a first-half slump and sparked the Wildcats on an 8-0 run.

From there on out, it was blow for blow, basket for basket, player for player. There were three ties and 14 lead changes Sunday. It was college basketball at its finest, but Kentucky landed the hardest punch.

"I thought it was a great game the whole time it was going on," Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. "It was back and forth. They would have the lead, we would have the lead, they would have the lead, we would have the lead. And ultimately their lead was two or three points."

That haymaker came from James Young, who, after seconds earlier had hit a layup, pulled up from behind the arc and drained a 3 to give UK a 73-71 lead with 1:41 to play.

"It was supposed to be a drive for (Andrew Harrison), but then I guess the defender stopped him a little bit, so he gave the extra pass and I just shot with confidence and it felt good to hit it," Young said.

From there on out, it was a matter of who could withstand the pressure the best. Andrew Harrison, who nearly didn't play Sunday because of a right elbow injury suffered Friday in the Kansas State game, was game.

The freshman guard, who has taken more than his fair share of criticism for UK's 10-loss season, stepped up with three free throws over the final 42 seconds to ice the win.

"I fought through it," Andrew Harrison said of the pain in his elbow. "The elbow, once you get your adrenaline flowing, it felt fine."

Between Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle, UK hit 11 of 14 free throws over the final 4:52 of game time. One of the only misses - the back end of Andrew Harrison's two free throws with 7.2 seconds left - gave Wichita State a shot to win or tie it, but VanVleet's miss out of a timeout ended a super season for the Shockers.

"It's literally been a magic carpet ride," Marshall said.

The Cats just pulled it out from under them.

"All of the adversity we have been through all season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally get a big win like that, just enjoyed it," Randle said. "Everybody was happy and we just have to keep building on it."

UK shot 54.0 percent for the game - its highest mark since Dec. 21 - knocked down 8 of 18 3-pointers and hit 16 of 22 from the line.

Andrew Harrison led all scorers with 20 points and was clutch down the stretch, but Aaron Harrison was just as big with 19 points and four 3-pointers. Randle rebounded from a rough first half with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, and Young finished with 13 points and eight rebounds.

Wichita State looked liked it was going to hold UK off when the sensational Cleanthony Early - he of the 31 points and 12-of-17 shooting - hit one of his four 3-pointers go give the Shockers a 69-64 lead with 4:36 left, but there were so many moments the Cats could have died and didn't.

Take, for instance, the nine-point Wichita State lead in the first half when UK suddenly couldn't hang on to the ball. Young answered stole back momentum with a 3 before halftime.

Or the 6-0 run by the Shockers when UK had seized the momentum and the lead, 58-55. Andrew Harrison calmly answered it by getting to the line and making two foul shots.

"Earlier in the year we would have gave in, but it just shows how we've grown," Dakari Johnson said.

Was there some good fortune involved? Maybe a little. One could probably chalk up Aaron Harrison’s banked 3-pointer as that. Same thing when Early missed a lob dunk to go up five.

But for a Kentucky team that had failed to live up to its preseason billing and had so often hit the mat when fights got tough in the regular season, there's something to be said about UK playing itself into a position for its biggest win the year - and perhaps a season-changing one at that.

"A lot of people counted us out the first game, let alone this game," Cauley-Stein said. "It just goes to show that we kept on fighting through all the bad stuff that happened the rest of the season and playing with a will to win and playing with more energy and effort now. That's the game, especially in the tournament."

For the Cats, who talked of a new season when the postseason began last week at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, they've been given a chance to write a new ending.

"They have been through so much," Calipari said. "They have been attacked, they have been bludgeoned, 'they can't play, they're not a team, you can't do it this way.' But they stayed together. It makes you strong. It makes you tough as nails. And we just hung around."

When the game ended and the Cats jogged back to the locker room, the coach who has dragged his bad hip along for the last few months seemed to float to the locker room as he pumped his fist in the air for the fans clad in blue.

Coach Cal said not to mistake his happiness as a sigh of relief.

"If wins are relief, it's time for me to retire," he said. "This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I'd hoped. I told them after the game, I've been hard on you like I've been every team. It's just been a longer process with you guys. But at the end of the day, you are seeing that they understand what's acceptable and what's not acceptable."

Now the stage is set for yet another gargantuan NCAA Tournament showdown with archrival Louisville, the second one in three seasons. Randle admitted he has "no idea" what to expect in the buildup to Friday's titanic showdown in Indy, but he's got time to figure it out.

"I just wish we had another month of the season left, like keep playing, because we're getting better every day," Calipari said. "I just wish, you know, this thing could extend and extend and extend, but obviously it won't."

It will for at least one more week and without the weight of the world on their shoulders.