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By Nick Gray | Basketball beat writer
Once again, UK found itself trying to find the right answer to the questions asked throughout the first two months of the season about finishing off ranked teams in the closing minutes.
This version of soul-searching for the Cats came without freshman forward Julius Randle, sitting out the large amount of the second half with cramps.
Without Randle, the Cats defeated the University of Louisville 73-66 on Saturday at Rupp Arena through play from several players in what resembled a team effort.
“I thought we grew up today,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “We have to be more like a team and they were that today.”
The UK victory was its first in four tries against ranked opponents and its fifth win against in-state rival Louisville in six tries dating back to 2010.
Randle first went inside the locker room with a visible limp before three minutes passed in the second half. The 6-foot, 9-inch freshman forward attempted twice to return to the game, but was grimacing with each uneasy step across the court before finally exiting for good with 11:01 to go in the game.
UK pushed ahead on a 22-14 after his exit.
“We wanted to win this (game). Some of these guys have never been in a situation like this before. We just wanted to come out and play like a good team,” UK freshman guard James Young said.
Young echoed his coach’s points before the game about team basketball. Calipari said three things were on the chalkboard before the game.
“Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team,” Calipari said.
Early, Louisville jumped to a 8-0 lead behind a pair of three-pointers by junior guard Chris Jones. Randle shouldered UK’s offensive load from that point on in the first half, making his home on the high post and driving to the rim to the tune of 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
The Cardinals kept the margin within reach with their starting backcourt of Jones and junior guard Russ Smith, who combined for 25 points. Smith’s one-handed dunk silenced the crowd with under a minute remaining in the half and UK up by five, a lead it would carry into the break.
With Randle out of the equation throughout the second half, the Cats’ five-point halftime lead buoyed in the other direction. Smith scored eight of the Cardinals’ first 10 second-half points.
Louisville did briefly take the lead at 52-51 after a three by senior guard Luke Hancock and a three-point play by Jones with nine minutes to go in regulation. UK found themselves in another close game against a ranked opponent.
“It got to 53-53 and I got upset because a couple guys started to get that look, like, ‘We’re going to lose,’” Calipari said.
The 22-14 run to the end the game consisted of exactly one UK made field goal outside of the paint or the free throw line — a three-point basket by Young, who had 18 points on the night. Freshman guard Andrew Harrison’s (18 points) three-point play pushed the Cats’ lead to 58-53 with 7:43 left.
From there, UK limited Louisville to two made field goals and stretched the lead out into double digits. Cats sophomore forward Alex Poythress’ baseline dunk with the shot clock winding down gave UK a commanding 71-61 advantage with less than two minutes to go.
UK used its size to out-rebound Louisville 44-36 while adding 42 points in the paint.
Cats sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein tied the team-high in rebounds with 10, along with Young’s 10 boards.
“We had a shot in the second half and missed free throws and a had a big defensive mistake in giving up the three,” Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino said. “From a physical standpoint, we are getting outplayed in the three, four and five spots physically.”
UK has eleven days to prepare for their conference opener, a matchup with Mississippi State University (9-3) at Rupp Arena on Jan. 8. First, the Cats will get 24 hours to celebrate before three-a-days begin Sunday night.
“We got to become a team,” Calipari said. “One of things I told them prior to the game, ‘What prepared us for this game was playing Michigan State. Playing Providence. playing Baylor, playing North Carolina and playing Belmont prepared us for this game.’”
“This team needed (the Louisville game).”