In a game that may go down as the best in this year's tourney, the eighth-seeded Wildcats fought through 14 lead changes and nine-point deficits in each half on their way to a 78-76 win over Wichita State on Sunday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Kentucky surged ahead by making five of its final six free throws in the final minute of play. Andrew Harrison, who led the Wildcats with 20 points, missed the second of two free throws with 7.2 seconds remaining, giving the Shockers one final opportunity to keep their dream of an unbeaten season alive.
Aaron Harrison and Willie Cauley-Stein bounced hard off the rim, touching off a court-storming celebration by the Cats.
The last time UK faced an undefeated No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament was 1975 when the Wildcats may have derailed back to back perfect seasons by edging the Hoosiers in the Elite Eight. Bobby Knight's next squad went on to win the title in 1976, becoming the last unbeaten champion.
Kentucky (26-10) advances to play arch-rival Louisville (31-5) next Friday in Indianapolis in a Sweet 16 matchup of the programs that claimed the 2012 and 2013 national championships. The Cats defeated the Cardinals 73-66 on Dec. 28 at Rupp Arena in their annual regular-season matchup.
"We just felt good beating a great team," said UK freshman point guard Andrew Harrison, who had a team-high 20 points despite coming into the game with a hyper-extended right elbow he sustained in the closing moments of Friday's win over Kansas State. "It just shows all the work we've put in and how we're getting better. Even in this tournament, we're still getting better. We just enjoy playing the game and getting a big win like that."
"All the adversity we've been through this season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally getting a big win like that, just enjoyed it," added UK freshman forward Julius Randle, who recorded his 22nd double-double of the season with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
The Cats also got 19 points from Harrison's twin brother, Aaron, who went 4-for-7 from 3-point range, as well as 13 points and eight rebounds from freshman wing James Young.
It took all the firepower the youth-dominated Cats could muster to overcome an impressive showing by one of the nation's elite teams. Wichita State (35-1) shot 55 percent from the floor, hit 10 of 21 from beyond the arc, and got a game-high 31 points from senior guard Cleanthony Early. The Shockers' Ron Baker also scored 20 points, but somehow it wasn't enough.
Kentucky's Andrew Harrison, who scored a team-high 20 points, drives into the lane. (USA Today Sports Photo by Jaysen Vinlove.)
Asked what he would have said if he was told prior to the game that Wichita State would perform at that level, UK coach John Calipari said: "I would have told you it's been a heckuva season."
Kentucky also shot well (27 of 50, 54 percent) and held a 32-23 rebounding advantage, leading to a 16-5 edge in second-chance points.
"All we've done all year is continue to get better," the UK boss added. "We've hit some pots, like every time, you hit a little hole and you don't play well, but they believed in themselves."
Wichita State led by nine in the closing moments of the first half before Young hit a 3-point shot to pull UK within 37-31 at the break. The Cats used an 8-0 spurt early in the second half to pull within one.
From there, it was a back-and-forth game the rest of the way. Kentucky went up 50-46 after a lob dunk by Willie Cauley-Stein, but the Shockers roared back with a 12-5 run to lead 58-55 with 8:56 remaining.
A banked 3-pointer by Aaron Harrison tied the game at 60 with 6:51 to go. Wichita's Baker would return the favor with 29 seconds left, banking in a 3-pointer to pull the Shockers within 75-74.
Two free throws by Randle with 22.5 seconds left and two by Early at the 9.8 mark set up the dramatic finish.
"Both teams were making plays," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "Back and fourth, back and fourth.... A high-level game at both ends."
Calipari took a jab at the NCAA Tournament selection committee, suggesting the Cats never should have been a No. 8 seed for the Shockers.
"I've been doing this so long. I've been in wars," Calipari said. "You all understand this was an Elite Eight (type) game. The winner of this should ahve gone to the Final Four.
"I feel for their team, and I feel for their coach. I'm happy we won. I'm happy for our guys. And I'm disappointed because (Wichita State) had a heckuva run."
• Today's game marked the first meeting between Kentucky and Wichita State.
• Kentucky improved to 5-9 all-time against a No. 1 seed.
• The Wildcats lead the nation with an all-time record of 113-46 in the NCAA Tournament, including a 7-1 mark in games played in St. Louis.
• UK is 15-2 in NCAA Tournament games under John Calipari.
• Next week's game will mark UK's 44th appearance in the Sweet 16.