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December 28, 2013

With Randle out, Cats come together to beat Cards

His team had lost at North Carolina 14 days before, and Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison said then that it wasn't a talent issue for the Wildcats.

It was about whether they could take a punch.

And here came No. 6 Louisville into Rupp Arena on Saturday, throwing haymakers.

The Cardinals jabbed their way to eight straight points to start the game. They landed a roundhouse right in rallying from nine points down late in the first half to tie the game early in the second. And No. 18 Kentucky took an uppercut to the gut when its best player, Julius Randle, left the game with second-half cramps.

"Definitely, I feel like we took some punches with Julius going down and stuff," Harrison said after helping Kentucky power back to win 73-66. "It just showed our resilience. Showed us that we can get through anything."

In the second half against the defending NCAA champs, Randle sat down.

But Kentucky grew up.

"I didn't even recognize (Randle) wasn't there," UK coach John Calipari said. "I just coached the game. We have enough guys."

The Wildcats (10-3) had enough on Saturday.

They had Andrew Harrison, spinning past the Cards in crunch time, for a layup-and-free-throw three-point play with 7:42 remaining that put UK in front 58-53, then to Alex Poythress for a dunk at the 1:42 mark the put the Cats ahead by 10.

They had James Young shaking off a slow start to score 18 points, grab 10 rebounds and dish four assists, a performance that earned him game MVP honors from the Bluegrass Sports Commission.

They had Aaron Harrison pitching in 10 points, all in the second half. They had Alex Poythress providing defensive energy that helped UK outscore Louisville by 20 points in his 21 minutes.

"Did we look more like a basketball team today?" Calipari said. "We looked like a basketball team. Here is what was on the board today: Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team. That was the keys to the game."

And after that initial 8-0 burst by Louisville, the Cats checked all the boxes.

It was never more impressive than when they did it without Randle. He scored all 17 of his points in the first half, then played a lumbering four minutes in the second, before sitting the last 11 minutes with cramps.

"We just acted like he was on the floor still," Young said. "Really just kept giving it to the post and tried to drive it as best as we could. Willie (Cauley-Stein) came up with some big rebounds, and Alex. It was like (Randle) was still there."

But he wasn't, and that's significant.

When Louisville came back to tie the game, the Cats didn't slump their shoulders. When shots didn't drop, neither did heads. The oft-analyzed body language was almost all positive.

"It shows that we can do it, we can play hard," Young said. "Without Julius on the floor it really brought us together, probably more as a team. That's what I think we probably needed. We really needed to just stay close and keep moving forward."

Young predicted that's going to happen. He called the Louisville win -- Kentucky's first this season against a ranked opponent after losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina -- a "turning point." He told reporters of the way UK played in the second half, "you guys are going to see it a lot more."

"We know we have so much talent, but at the same time, in college everyone has talent," Andrew Harrison said. "And whoever plays the hardest is gonna win. That's what I think we're starting to get, and we're starting to play that way."


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