"Another great basketball game. Proud of my kids," the UK coach said after his team's 74-69 win over Bluegrass State arch-rival Louisville on Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
"Told them before the game, you'll get punched in the mouth, and you're going to taste blood. You're going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing."
The eighth-seeded Wildcats fought back from a 13-point hole in the first half and got off the mat from a seven-point deficit late in the game to oust the defending national champions and fourth-seeded Cardinals.
Kentucky (27-10) outscored Louisville 15-3 over the final four minutes. The run started with a dunk by Alex Poythress, who scored all six of his points in crunchtime. It also featured a huge 3-pointer out of the left corner by Aaron Harrison with 39 seconds left after the Cardinals' Russ Smith had put his team ahead 68-67 moments earlier.
A pair free throws by Julius Randle extended UK's lead to 72-69 with 13 seconds left. Smith's last-ditch 3 for Louisville was off the mark with two seconds to go, and Harrison sealed the victory with a pair of free throws that sent the Wildcats on to an Elite Eight matchup against No. 2 seed Michigan on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.
Even Louisville coach Rick Pitino got in on the boxing metaphors.
"It was a heavyweight fight, and we lost a great fight," he said. "Give them credit."
Kentucky got 15 points and 12 rebounds from Julius Randle, who recorded his 23rd double-double of the season. He became just the third freshman in the history of the NCAA Tournament to record three consecutive double-doubles and moved within two of Hall of Famer Dan Issel's single-season school record of 25.
The Cats also got a career-high 15 points and six rebounds from freshman center Dakari Johnson, as well as 15 and 14 points, respectively, from Harrison and his twin brother, Andrew.
But it was Poythress who may have saved the day for UK. The sophomore forward had six points, a rebound, a blocked shot and a steal in a 2:44 span that saw the Cats go from trailing 66-61 to leading 67-66.
The Wildcats celebrate their 74-69 win over the Cardinals. (USA Today Sports Photo by Bob Donnan.)
"I will say this because he's not up here (on the interview podium), Alex Poythress won the game for us," Calipari said. "We were begging him the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time. It was unbelievable how he finished. That's who he needs to be for us as we finish the year out."
Poythress's heroics were part of a second half which saw Kentucky shoot 56 percent from the field and commit just five turnovers against the relentless Louisville defense. The Cats coughed the ball up seven times and shot just 33 percent in the first half, a figure that was in the 20s for most of the opening period boosted by a late surge before the half.
Louisville (31-6) got 23 points from Smith in the final game of his All-American career, but he went 1-for-7 from 3-point range and missed six of his 10 free throw attempts. The Cardinals could have led by more than the 34-31 margin at the half, but went 6-for-15 at the line.
Last year's Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Luke Hancock, added 19 points for the Cardinals. Montrezl Harrell posted 15 points and eight rebounds.
Kentucky won despite losing sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, its best interior defender who blocked 106 shots this season, to an ankle injury early in the game. His status for the remainder of the tournament is uncertain, but Calipari indicated it did not look good.
Cauley-Stein was with the Cats in spirit, though, as they fought back to win.
"The doctor told me he was absolutely going bonkers in the locker room for game, like for the team, cheering. They had to hold him down, he was going crazy," Calipari said.
• UK leads the all-time series with Louisville 32-15, including a 4-2 mark in the NCAA Tournament.
• Calipari now owns a 6-1 record against Pitino during the two coaches' time at UK and UofL, respectively.
• UK is 16-2 in NCAA Tournament games under Calipari.
• The Cats are 4-1 all-time in NCAA Tournament games played in the city of Indianapolis.
• Sunday's Midwest Regional final appearance will mark the 33rd time in school history that UK has advanced to that round of the tourney.