LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As Julius Randle made his way to the locker room -- leg cramps, not Louisville, the only thing that could stop him in Rupp Arena -- it was hard not think back to a Kentucky moment from a year ago.
That situation was far more dire -- his team already trailed by a dozen when Nerlens Noel crashed into a stanchion at Florida.
But there was still a fighting chance left for the season, depending on whom the Cats decided to be. Turns out, those Cats decided to be a shell of their former selves, waving the white flag of surrender and losing five of their final nine, including a dismal NIT loss at Robert Morris.
Two months into this season and these Wildcats didn’t know who they were, either -- or who they could be and more, what they wanted to be. After three early losses and some less than inspiring wins, they were a bunch of parts, not a team; a group with a lot of questions and no obvious answers.
There seemed so much wrong with Kentucky that even the usual fervor and blustering surrounding the commonwealth rivalry was quieted.
And then Randle left for the locker room for the final time with 11:01 left in a one-point game against nemesis Louisville.
So just who did Kentucky want to be?
“We wanted to prove to people that we could play together and be a team,’’ James Young said.
In impressive fashion, Kentucky did.
The game tied at 53, Young scored after scooping up a missed shot and the Cats would never trail again, going on to win 73-66.
It helped that Louisville looked thoroughly dysfunctional. Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan are on a milk carton somewhere in Kentucky, missing in action with a woeful 2-of-5 combined shooting effort. Luke Hancock didn’t actually fare much better, going 2-of-8 from the arc and 3-of-11 from the floor.
But this game was as much about what Kentucky did as what Louisville didn’t.
Statistically the Cats played to their strengths, pulling down 17 offensive rebounds for 17 second-chance points, but it’s more how they played and how they looked than what the stat sheet said.
“Did we look more like a basketball team today?’’ John 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 key to the game. There was no, ‘let’s guard the pick and roll.’ We have to be more like a team and that’s what they were today.’’
Now anyone who would call the Cats cured of what ails them after one game clearly has never met a teenager. They are as predictable as the shape of paint splatter shot out of a cannon.
It is nothing less than fool’s gold to take a courageous performance in a heated rivalry game in front of a fevered crowd and say the magic wand has been waved for the season.
Calipari admitted as much, happy to point out Kentucky’s lousy free-throw shooting (53 percent) and 3-point shooting (3-of-14). He was so jazzed by the win that he said he’d give his team all of 12 hours to enjoy it.
He plans to practice at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
But there is almost always a turning point in a season, a moment a team can pinpoint and say, "this is where we got our act together." Louisville’s, for example, came in five overtimes last season, in what would be its last loss of the season.
This could very well be Kentucky’s.
“From here on out, we’re just going to be a real good team,’’ Young vowed. “Just going to fight the whole game and not just take quarters off and plays off; just keep fighting.’’
The dirty little secret with the "best college basketball recruiting class ever assembled" is that with the exception of Randle, it has been pretty mediocre. Andrew and Aaron Harrison have been inconsistent and Young has been streaky with his shooting. Only Randle has been steady.
Even playing essentially just one half against Louisville, Randle managed to keep his double-digit scoring streak alive. He had 17 by the break.
Yet without him, Kentucky actually played well, if not better (and let’s pause here for foolishness identification. Anyone who thinks the Cats are "too reliant" on Randle has clearly lost his mind. It’s OK to be reliant on a guy who will be a top-five draft pick).
In place of eye rolling or shoulder sagging from the much-maligned Harrison twins, there was a combined 28 points and (mostly) smart decisions with the ball. From Young, there were three made treys, but also 10 key rebounds.
And from the Cats in general there was a sense of urgency and purpose.
"I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that, but we knew we could win this game," Andrew Harrison said. “Going against a team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it."
There always has been ample talent to win an NCAA title here -- probably enough talent to challenge for a D-League title, for that matter.
But all that talent, strangely enough, has been the Cats’ Achilles heel. In high school, in summer league games talent almost always wins. Teams can afford to take a play off here or turn on the jets at the last minute and waltz into the showers with a victory.
With the better part of this roster only a few months removed from the ease of winning, it was hard to convince them things had to be done differently in college.
Now there is evidence -- not just how a team can lose when it doesn’t work together, but how a team can win when it does.