INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — John Calipari finally figured out how to get his players’ attention. He banned television.
The Wildcats and their fans aren’t complaining now.
Julius Randle had 15 points and 12 rebounds, Dakari Johnson added 15 points and forced Russ Smith into missing a potential game-tying 3-pointer and eighth-seeded Kentucky advanced to Sunday’s Midwest Regional championship game with a 74-69 victory over rival Louisville.
“They’re playing for each other,” Calipari said after beating last year’s national champs for the second time this season. “They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It’s just taken us a long time.”
The transformation couldn’t have come at a better time.
After a wild ride through the regular season, Kentucky (27-10) is finally rolling along – perhaps just in time to get back to the Final Four.
All the eight-time national champs have to do now is beat second-seeded Michigan (28-8) at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Wolverines barely advanced with a 73-71 victory over Tennessee, a game in which the Volunteers rallied from a 15-point deficit and had a chance to win it in the final 10 seconds – only to turn the ball over on a charging call.
The Wildcats seemed just as unlikely a choice to be playing on the last weekend of March.
Following a loss at Florida, on March 8, Kentucky had lost three of four. Since then, they’ve won five of six and the group Calipari watched Friday night hardly resembled the team he had watched the first 25 games.
One potential problem for Kentucky this weekend is an ankle injury to forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who left the game with about 13 minutes to go in the first half. After the game, Calipari described it as “not a good ankle injury.”
But they didn’t need him Friday night.
Randle, Johnson and Aaron Harrison all finished with 15 points. Andrew Harrison had 14 points and seven assists and the Wildcats played good enough defense down the stretch to swing the game.
It looked as if Louisville (31-6) was headed toward that highly-anticipated rematch of last year’s NCAA title game when Luke Hancock made two free throws with 4:33 left to give the Cardinals a 66-59 lead.
That’s when the Wildcats buckled down.
Aaron Harrison started the game-closing run with two free throws. Alex Poythress tied the score with a three-point play with 2:11 to play, gave Kentucky the lead for good with another free throw at the 1:26 mark, and the Wildcats’ suffocating defense allowed just one basket – a jumper from Smith with 1:10 – the rest of the way.
“We lost it at the foul line and we lost it on the backboard, every other area we played really well,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “But you’ve got to give them credit. They usually beat you on the backboard. That was the catalyst at the end of the game.”
Louisville was led by two seniors – Smith with 23 points and Luke Hancock with 19.
What has helped Kentucky’s sudden surge? Time and patience.
“Thank goodness it was a 30-game season,” Calipari said. “We had five more games to get this thing right and get the plane down before the runway ran out and we were in grass.”
Michigan, the Big Ten regular season champion and conference tourney runner-up, nearly got derailed in a game it dominated for the first 35 minutes.
The second-seeded Wolverines led by 13 in the first half, 11 at halftime, 60-45 with 10:55 to play and were still up 70-60 with 3:40 left when Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas hit a 3-pointer. Then, it seemed as if Michigan started panicking.
The 11th-seeded Vols (24-13) forced four turnovers in the last 97 seconds including the play when Caris LeVert’s foot touched the baseline as he caught an inbound pass with 9.6 seconds to go and Michigan hanging on to a 72-71 lead.
But with a chance to win, Jarnell Stokes was called for a charge, Stauskas made 1 of 2 free throws and Jordan McRae’s 70-foot heave wasn’t even close.
“I just was there. It’s just something I do,” Morgan said after scoring 15 points. “I take the charge. That’s what I do.”
Tennessee was led by McRae with 24 and Josh Richardson with 19, becoming the first SEC team to lose in this year’s tourney.
Michigan and Kentucky will meet for the first time since the Wolverines won 81-78 in overtime behind the Fab Five in the 1993 national semifinals.
“Certainly there was a lot of drama at the end,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “But we’ve had a lot of that this year.”