Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey
ST. LOUIS — Players for both Kentucky and Wichita State said all the right things in the lead-up to the most anticipated matchup of the NCAA Tournament so far.
The Wildcats praised the Shockers, saying their undefeated record was no mirage. The Shockers praised the Wildcats, saying their size, athleticism and talent were as advertised.
After the two teams went back and forth for 40 of the most intense minutes you’re ever likely to see on a college basketball court, UK and Wichita State showed the pregame compliments weren’t idle talk.
Once the Cats finished a brief celebration of their heart-stopping 78-76 win, the teams assembled for a handshake line that proved to be much more than just perfunctory.
“I told them I watched tape of you guys and it’s amazing and I am happy for our guys,” John Calipari said. “And I am just disappointed because they had a heck of a run going.”
A matchup as hard-fought as Sunday’s often leads to bad blood, but not this time.
“Coach Cal just told me we had a marvelous season,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. “And I congratulated each and every one of them and told them, you know, ‘Congratulations and great game.’ ”
The only thing between UK and Wichita State was mutual respect.
“They played a great game,” Marshall said. “They put on a wonderful show. And I just thought it was a great basketball game. And they deserved it tonight. They played — they were one play better.”
Even Ron Baker and Andrew Harrison — two players who often guarded one another and scored 20 points apiece — only had good things to say.
“At the end I shook hands with Andrew Harrison and he said, ‘You’re a bad, bad, bad boy,’ ” Baker said. “And I told him the same. He’s a great player and I wish him the best.”
Aaron Harrison had his turn guarding Baker too and had a similar reaction.
“It is a great team and they had a lot of great players on that team. And I was matched up with him and it was a joy just playing, playing the game,” Aaron Harrison said. “And we had to play hard and battling is really fun and just going to work, really fun. And going against a great player like that was a good matchup and a great challenge.”
Both teams thrived on the challenge and the 19,676 fans in the Scottrade Center got to watch the result.
“They have a few great players on that team, so we knew we were going to have to play every possession,” Andrew Harrison said. “And it was just a joy.”
Coach Cal can’t put classic into perspective
Hyperbole was flying around during and after Kentucky’s win over Wichita State.
Twitter was abuzz with attempts to put the game into perspective, while television analyst and hall of famer Charles Barkley immediately ranked it among the best he’s ever seen.
Asked whether it’s the best game he’s ever coached in, Calipari let a little air out of the big-game balloon.
“I have been doing this so long, I don’t want to say that,” Calipari said. “I’ve been in wars.”
That’s not to say, however, that UK-Wichita State wasn’t special.
“I would say this was an Elite Eight game that the winner should have gone to the Final Four,” Calipari said. “That’s how good they are and how good we’re playing right now.”
In Calipari’s eyes, the Shockers didn’t deserve to lose in the third round. But even so, the defeat that came too soon doesn’t erase what Wichita State accomplished in coping with all that comes with carrying an unbeaten record into late March.
“I feel for their team and I feel for their coach,” Calipari said. “And Gregg, understand what he did to keep these guys on point was nothing short of miraculous. I have done it where I had to coach teams that were 26-0, 20-0. I’m telling you, each game there is more and more pressure to win.”
That pressure was only intensified by playing in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“I was also in a league where we could not afford to lose any league games,” Calipari said. “If we did we became a seven seed. We would go from a one seed to a seven seed. You couldn’t lose any games. I have been where he is. I know how hard they worked.”
The buildup for U of L has already begun
The dust had barely settled from what will likely be one of the greatest games Julius Randle will ever play in, but given the next opponent and what lies ahead this week, the question about Louisville was inevitable.
“Julius,” the reporter started, “your reward for winning a game like this is you get to play Louisville. Do you have any idea what this week will be like building up to that?”
“I have no idea,” Randle said.
He really has no clue.
When Kentucky-Louisville played in the Final Four in 2012 for the right to go to the national championship game, it was like nothing the state of Kentucky had ever seen in the storied rivalry.
Sure, there have been some classics over the years, and maybe nothing can quite ever compare to the the original Dream Game in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, but the buildup? It was unprecedented in 2012.
This year’s meeting in the NCAA Tournament might take a slight step back from that game two seasons ago, but only slightly – and only because this one’s a few games removed from the title game.
But when you take into account UK and Louisville have won the last two national titles and could easily win a third one as well, the buildup for Friday’s game at 9:45 p.m. in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is going be insane.
Alex Poythress had already turned his attention from the postgame celebration on Sunday to Louisville by the time reporters met with him in the locker room.
“We have to,” Poythress said. “We got to take it one game at a time, focus on your opponent. We got to come out and play strong, try to take their strengths away.”
UK won the regular-season meeting 73-66 at Rupp Arena on Dec. 28. The Cats won that game without the services of Julius Randle for most of the second half because of cramps in his legs.
It was Coach Cal’s fifth victory in six games against Louisville since coming to Kentucky.
Since then though, Louisville has returned to its national-championship form of a year ago, winning 14 of its last 15 games behind Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrell and a stifling defense.
“They press a lot, they got great guards (and) good bigs,” Poythress said. “We just got to come out and try to take those points away and try to break the press and everything like that.”
If someone would have told Calipari before the game that Wichita State would shoot 55.1 percent from the floor and 10 for 21 from behind the arc, he wouldn’t have given his team much of a chance.
“I would have said it was a heck of a year,” Coach Cal said.
As it turns out, Kentucky matched Wichita State in the shooting column, staying within reaching distance with strong shooting performances from the Harrison twins, James Young and Alex Poythress.
But the Cats didn’t rely solely on their jump shots to win. When the game was on the line late, UK took the ball to the hoop.
While Cleanthony Early and Baker seemed to make anything and everything from all spots on the floor, UK made a concerted effort in crunch time to drive to the basket, get a layup or get fouled.
“In the end they basically just lowered their head,” Marshall said. “It seemed they were just driving it and we were having too much body contact. And for the first time this year, it seemed like the rules, the new rules, worked against us as opposed to in our favor. So credit them.”
As a result, the Cats shot 14 free throws over the final 4:52 of game time, making 11 of them.
“That was a big key,” Marshall said. “We couldn’t defend the foul line at the end of the last eight or 10 minutes.”
Play of the game
Aaron Harrison hit big shots. Andrew Harrison made clutch free throws. Julius Randle ignited the second-half rally. And James Young hit the biggest shot of the game.
The biggest play of the game in Calipari’s eyes, however, was Dakari Johnson’s unofficial offensive rebound after Aaron Harrison missed the second of two free throws with 4:11 to play.
Johnson didn’t get credit for the rebound because he deflected it off a Wichita State player and out of bounds, but it gave UK the ball back. Andrew Harrison went to the line for two more free throws after the timeout, making both and getting UK within 69-67 with 3:54 left in the game.
“That was the play of the game,” Coach Cal said. “If we don’t get the ball and get it back to two, I don’t think we win the game.
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.