Sweet redemption or painful replay. That's the either/or Kentucky faced in the NCAA Tournament Sunday. After a season marked by competitive, but frustrating losses against ranked teams, UK's freshman-oriented team finally made its mark by beating previously unbeaten Wichita State 78-76 in the Mideast Region. Kentucky, 26-10, advanced to next week's Sweet 16 in Indianapolis, where the Cats will play arch-rival Louisville. The Cats needed a rally in the final four minutes to beat Wichita State, which came into the game with Division I's first 35-0 record. Star forward Cleanthony Early scored 31 points for Wichita State. But Andrew Harrison, whose status seemed in doubt when he injured his right elbow late in Friday night's victory over Kansas State, made three free throws in the final minute to help clinch the victory. He led UK with 20 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison added 19, James Young 13 and Julius Randle 13 (and 10 rebounds). Before the game, Jarrod Polson termed it a "big statement game for us." Wichita State, which felt under-appreciated in its historic season, felt similarly. "This is a big step in our road . . . ," said Ron Baker, who scored 20 for the Shockers. "But there's nobody on our schedule that compares to them. This will be a great game to show the nation what we're capable of." Wichita State came close. But UK, which had lost six of seven previous games against ranked opponents (five by a total of 25 points), won this time when Fred VanVleet's desperation three-pointer missed in the final seconds. Kentucky trailed 69-65 with barely four minutes left. Cleanthony's three-pointer, part of his 19-point second half, put the Cats in do-or-die territory. UK clawed back with defense and free-throw shooting. After taking only four free throws in the first 28 minutes, the Cats made six of eight in less than 90 seconds to get close. A drive by James Young, who appeared to lose control of the ball for an instant, put Kentucky ahead 70-69 with 2:49 left. That marked the fifth of seven lead changes in the second half. After Early hit a jumper to give Wichita State the lead, Young hit a three-pointer. That made UK eight of 18 from beyond the arc. Kentucky stayed ahead by making five of six free throws in the final minute. Nothing better typified Wichita State's superiority in the firsh half than the penultimate play. VanVleet, the Missouri Valley Conference's Player of the Year, stripped the ball from Aaron Harrison as the UK freshman judged offensive possibilities. VanVleet bounced a pass diagonally downcourt that hit Cleanthony Early in stride. Early's dunk while being fouled by Cauley-Stein, and subsequent three-point play, put Wichita State ahead 37-28, whcih matched UK's largest deficit of the half. UK's Young hit a three-pointer with 10 seconds left to set UK's 37-31 halftime deficit. UK shot well (13 of 24) and got 14 productive minutes from Andrew Harrison, whose status had been listed as "day-to-day" after he injured his elbow. Yet, Kentucky needed the good shooting and typical rebound advantage (14-11) to compensate for Randle's quiet half (two points, four rebounds, a career-high tying four assists). Wichita State overcame a good start by UK's Harrison twins (14 of the team's first 19 points) and took the lead on two free throws with 9:53 left. Kentucky went more than seven mintues with only two baskets — an awkward floater by Young and Randle's only basket, a post-up. Kentucky went into the second half having lost eight of 12 games it trailed at halftime. Randle, dubbed "the one-half wonder" by mentor Jeff Webster, lived up to the billing. His put-back dunk brought UK within 40-33 inside the first minute of the second half and signaled his intentions.
Kentucky spoils Wichita State's clean record
Lexington Herald-Leader | Mar 23