Tied at 51 with arch-rival Louisville with 11:07 to play Saturday at Rupp Arena, Kentucky had to find a way to record a "signature victory" the hard way: without its best player.
Despite getting only four minutes in the second half from freshman forward Julius Randle due to severe leg cramps, the Wildcats pulled away for a 73-66 win over the Cardinals in an intense matchup between the programs that won the last two men's national championships.
Kentucky (10-3) got a combined 27 second-half points from Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and James Young to help fill the void left by Randle, who had dominated the Cardinals for 17 points on 7-for-8 shooting in the first half.
Julius Randle dunked for two of his 17 points in the first half before being knocked out of the game with severe leg cramps. (AllWildcats.com Photo by Jeff Drummond.)
"Playing without Julius, I thought Alex was unbelievable," UK coach John Calipari said. "But he's been doing it in practice. He's never been like this (in a game). And I thought he was great."
Asked about playing a long stretch without its best player, Poythress said: "To be honest, there was a point when I didn't even notice. That is just how deep our team is and how well we are playing… We just kept playing hard, and I'm just proud that this team pulled through."
Louisville (11-2) did not get dividends from its signature weapon, the 3-point shot. The Cardinals made only six of 26 shots from behind the arc, a bad shooting night that was compounded by a 14-of-22 effort at the free throw line. Guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones scored 19 and 18 points, respectively, but made only 14 of their 33 attempts from the field and six of 11 free throws.
The Cardinals were outscored 42-24 in the paint and got only 11 combined points from the frontcourt of Montrezl Harrell, Wayne Blackshear and Chane Behanan. Kentucky also held a 44-36 rebounding advantage.
Rick Pitino's squad entered the game as the nation's No. 1 team in turnover margin, but finished with two more than the Wildcats (13-11) and had only 14 points off UK miscues, nine below their season average against opponents.
"I give them credit, they did a good job against our pressure," Pitino said. "Playing a couple of teams this year, from a physical standpoint, we are getting outplayed in the three, four and five spots physically. Nevermind, execution-wise, we are just getting taken on the backboard, taken inside and we have to improve in those areas."
Kentucky fell behind 8-0 in the opening minutes, but a raucous crowd of 24,396 – the ninth largest in Rupp Arena history – helped get the Wildcats back in the game. UK led 41-36 at halftime.
The Wildcats maintained the lead until a steal and layup by UofL's Jones made it 51-51 with 11:07 to play and Randle limped off the court after a second attempt to work off the cramps. A free throw by Jones moments later gave the Cardinals a 52-51 edge.
Kentucky responded with a 15-4 run over the next three minutes that included five points, three assists and three rebounds by Young, who was named the game MVP by the Bluegrass Sports Commission.
The Wildcats made only three of eight free throws down the stretch, but held on as Louisville missed its final five 3-point attempts.
Calipari overlooked the minor blemishes as the Cats finally got over the hump against a Top 25 opponent. UK had lost to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina in its three previous games against ranked foes.
"Did we look more like a basketball team today?" the UK boss 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. There was no, let's guard your pick-and-roll. Let's do it, just the team. We have to be more like a team, and they were that today."
• Kentucky leads the series against Louisville 31-15, including 5-1 under Coach John Calipari.
• UK has won 17 consecutive home games and is 76-2 in Rupp Arena under Calipari.
• The Wildcats are 8-0 this season when holding opponents under 40 percent from the field. Louisville shot 39.7 percent (23 of 58) from the floor.
• Kentucky has an extended break before returning to action and opening SEC play against Mississippi State on Wednesday, January 8, at Rupp Arena.