LEXINGTON, Ky.—Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison smiled when he was asked about John Calipari's comment from last week that Louisville plays harder than Kentucky.
"They're a great team, and they do play hard," Harrison said, diplomatically. "We just matched their intensity."
Harrison had heard that a time or 200. And the Baby 'Cats showed their coach they're starting to grow up on Saturday at Rupp Arena.
With star Julius Randle on the bench with cramps, with Russ Smith throwing down the dunk of the year, Calipari's team shrugged it all off and gave its most complete performance of the season in a 73-66 win that should silence the doubters (except perhaps their coach) for a week or two.
Kentucky is young. The youngest team in college basketball. Maybe ever. (Ken Pomeroy's tracking of such things [subscription required] goes back to 2007, and UK is the youngest since then.)
That narrative is going to get beat to death, and it should. It's not shocking that growing pains have taken place. The 'Cats have taken their lumps, and the preseason No. 1 has three losses to show for it.
"This team is becoming a good team," Calipari said. "We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game."
Calipari knows the Wildcats have no shot at winning any titles if they don't do the things that have made his past teams great. The lesson from the 2012 championship season wasn't that Calipari can win with freshmen; it's that he wins with a dominant defense.
Too often this season Kentucky's guards have provided a runway to the rim.
Smith took advantage late in the first half and early in the second half, driving at will on the bigger UK guards. Louisville's star guard took the air out of Rupp when he split a double-team, cocked the ball in his right hand and dunked in Randle's face right before halftime.
Calipari kept switching defenders on Smith until the Wildcats figured it out: They had to stop him together.
The bigs clogged the lanes. The guards did their part by not turning it over, preventing Smith and the Cardinals from getting out in transition. Kentucky had only four turnovers in the second half—11 total—against a defense that came into the game forcing 18.6 giveaways per game.
Calipari said he wrote three things on the board before the game: "Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team."
Driving home that point apparently helped on the defensive end, and so did having mobile big men like Willie Cauley-Stein who could switch onto Louisville's guards in ball-screen situations.
"I don't know that anybody's been able to do that to them," Calipari said. "That affected them."
Calipari's guys are capable of being great defensively. They just hadn't figured it out. This was a step in that direction.
Kentucky is also capable of being great offensively.
Randle showed in the first half how much he can dominate a game by himself, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting and picking on the horde of big men Rick Pitino threw at him.
The fact that Randle can be dominant is something that was already established. Who knew how UK would look without him?
"I didn't even recognize he wasn't there," Calipari said. "I just coached the game. We have enough guys."
The man could talk his way out of a mugging. He noticed. And he later admitted that he was pleading with the team doctor to get Randle back in the game. He said they gave the star freshman three IV bags.
But it may have been one of those moments in a season when a team faces some adversity and turns the corner.
The other 'Cats had to step up in Randle's absence, and they delivered. Aaron Harrison scored all 10 of his points after halftime. Andrew Harrison scored a career-high 18 points, James Young pitched in 18 and Alex Poythress played his best game of the year—UK was plus-20 with him in the game—filling in for Randle.
Poythress was key, but this was the Harrisons' game to win or lose once Randle went down. Much of the talk about the twins has been about their body language and sulking. Calipari pulled Andrew early in the game and spent the next minute with his back to the court, lecturing his point guard.
"He just told me I had to bring it," Andrew said.
These are the kinds of conversations Calipari has to have with his guys.
"As much as I hate to say, every game I'm coaching is like a war," Calipari said.
The Harrisons won this battle, outplaying Smith down the stretch as he reverted back to his Russdiculous ways and the Harrisons made controlled drives to the bucket.
Now, the real war for Calipari will be getting his team to play with that much effort when Louisville is not the opponent.
"In college, everyone has talent, and whoever plays the hardest is going to win, and that's what I think we're starting to get," Andrew said.
That should be a given, but whether the Wildcats actually get it is yet to be seen. Consistent effort is not a given when you're the youngest team in college basketball.
On this day, they started to figure it out.
Kentucky can still be the team that was the preseason pick to win the national championship. The talent is there. The effort, apparently, can be as well.
One good game doesn't solve everything. But telling the Baby 'Cats that someone else plays harder than them was a pretty good trick.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.
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