LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach John Calipari was so focused on coaching his team that he barely noticed star forward Julius Randle was on the bench.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison knew he wasn’t on the court and their work in offsetting his absence proved crucial in overcoming No. 6 Louisville. The twin freshmen combined for 28 points, including 11 during a critical second-half stretch with Randle sidelined, helping the 18th-ranked Wildcats earn a 73-66 victory on Saturday.
“It always hurts you when you lose a great player,” said Andrew Harrison. “But at the same time, we all knew we had to ... step it up a little bit.”
Randle’s 17 first-half points staked Kentucky (10-3) to a 41-36 halftime lead before the 6-foot-9 forward went to the locker room early in the second with leg cramps. He returned, but soon limped to the bench with more cramps.
The Harrison twins filled the void, turning a 52-51 deficit with 11:01 remaining into a 68-58 lead with four minutes left. Andrew Harrison and James Young each scored 18 points, with Young adding a key 3-pointer during the 17-6 run that helped Kentucky beat its in-state archrival for the fifth time in six meetings.
The young, talented Wildcats also earned their first win against a ranked opponent in four tries. This victory was particularly impressive coming against the defending national champions, who entered with significantly more experience than Kentucky’s squad featuring six high school All-Americans.
“I thought we grew up,” Calipari said. “We looked like a basketball team today. Here’s what was on the (drawing) board today: ‘Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team.’ Those were the keys to the victory.”
Russ Smith scored 19 points for Louisville (11-2). Chris Jones added 18 points for the Cardinals.
“We had a shot in the second half, and missed free throws and a big defensive mistake in giving up the 3-pointer,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “I give them credit.”
After losing tough early-season games to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, Kentucky finally found the formula to beat a ranked team. Other than allowing Louisville to open both halves with runs, the Wildcats handled everything the Cardinals tried, especially in the clutch, and kept control down the stretch.
The Wildcats outrebounded Louisville 44-36 including 17-12 offensively. Their significant size advantage kept the Cardinals from driving inside as they consistently contested shots and passes, and they controlled the paint in outscoring Louisville 42-24 and held the Cards to 40 percent shooting.
Young and Willie Cauley-Stein each grabbed 10 rebounds for Kentucky.
Most importantly, Kentucky earned Bluegrass State bragging rights after a week in which Pitino and Calipari tried to stress the big-picture perspective. Besides cautioning players about putting too much weight in this game, both coaches also told them to block out the noise leading up to this well-hyped showdown.
Tuning out the noise before 24,396 in Rupp Arena was another story. The standing-room only student section was filled an hour before tipoff and the din only grew louder – just after Louisville took the sea of Kentucky blue out of the game by scoring the first eight points.
Randle answered with five for the Wildcats, including a driving dunk for his first basket that quickly got the crowd excited. That play set the stage for a half in which he muscled his way past a variety of Louisville defenders on 7-of-8 shooting.
Cramps limited Randle to four second-half minutes and 21 overall, but not without a huge attempt from Kentucky’s medical staff to rehydrate him.
“Three bags of IV (fluid) and the doc was squeezing it in,” Calipari joked, “because I was saying, get him back, squeeze it.”
Andrew Harrison added seven points, helping to provide a 41-36 halftime lead as the Wildcats used their size to keep the Cardinals on the perimeter. Louisville started the second half quickly and tied it at 43 after two minutes as Smith scored five points while Mangok Mathiang added a putback. Louisville eventually grabbed its first lead since 9:09 of the first half, 52-51, on Jones’ three-point play.
From there it was all Kentucky as Andrew Harrison, Young and others banded together provided the victory the Wildcats had been seeking all year. That it came under adversity against their biggest rival before a charged-up crowd made it even sweeter.
“That’s what you come to Kentucky for, to play the big games,” Andrew Harrison said. “It’s a great feeling and it’s an even better win, but we’re always looking to get better.”