Winning Play Against Louisville is Julius Randle's Legacy as Wildcat
INDIANAPOLIS — With an indefinite number of games left in his Kentucky career—no more than three at this point, surely—it’s still unclear how Julius Randle will be remembered as a Wildcat. He’s been dominant at times, absent at others, alternating at random between brilliant and stubborn (and sometimes both). He’s been at his best when he’s taken control and imposed his insurmountable will rather than go through the motions—usually that spin move in the lane to which he defaults—and hope something nice happens.
The gravity of his will is so strong, it seems his biggest plays are dictated as simply as if he’s flipping pages in a Choose Your Own Basketball Game book and following along to an author’s poetic ideal of a bulldozing basketball player. He’s that good when he wants to be, and his decision late in Kentucky’s 74-69 Sweet 16 win over Louisville will, if nothing else, permanently etch him in Kentucky history for at least one moment of transcendent talent and bliss.
Louisville led 68-67 with under a minute to play, and Randle received a pass from Andrew Harrison and drove into the paint from the top of the key. Randle said he wanted to shoot—and Calipari said Randle would have forced a poor shot as recently as three weeks ago—but the defense collapsed on him at about eight or nine feet.
Even when he left his feet, Randle said he was still thinking he would shoot, but he saw Aaron Harrison wide open in the left corner. His man had collapsed in to help on Randle, and Randle saw Kentucky’s hottest three-point shooter with a wide-open look. The decision made itself, really.
Aaron Harrison said the easiest play for a driver to make in that situation is to reset to the top of the key. Andrew Harrison was there, but he was covered by Chris Jones, the player with the eighth-best steal percentage in all of college basketball this season. Randle was aware enough on his handful of barging steps in that Aaron Harrison was in the corner, that his man had collapsed, that it wouldn’t be an easy pass but that the easy pass wasn’t there, and that he still wanted to shoot but that he didn’t learn he couldn’t shoot until he had already left his feet.
Randle jumped, twisted, clutched and snapped a pass off his left hand to Aaron Harrison in the left corner. It was perfect. Harrison’s feet were square, and the pass hit him right around his waist, perfectly centered. Randle had put it in the perfect pocket for Harrison to catch and shoot as he would catching balls from a manager at practice. Aaron Harrison was 17 of 37 in the postseason before that shot, and attempt No. 38, the 18th make of the sample, never touched the rim.
It may be unfair in the wake of a game as exciting as Friday’s to reduce it to a single moment, but beyond a game’s result, moments live the longest. Before Harrison hit that shot, Kentucky had only led for 56 seconds in the entire game, and it was already pushing its luck playing without Willie Cauley-Stein, who suffered an undisclosed ankle injury in the first half and did not return, nor does it seem likely based on John Calipari’s post-game news conference that he will return Sunday against Michigan.
But as historically significant Friday’s game will be for both teams involved, it’s also somewhat fleeting for the victors. Kentucky left Lucas Oil Stadium early Saturday morning with less than 48 hours to rest its young legs and figure out the best way to try to stop Nik Stauskas. By the time the memory of this game can breathe, minutiae will be lost. Randle’s dish to Harrison will live on in posts to Facebook every December and kickers on pregame hype videos at Rupp Arena, in articles like this that may never be read again and in books that’ll be written in 30 years.
If some of the details inflate in age—if Harrison was on the right side, or if Randle drove into a triple team, or if 90,000 people were in the stadium—that’s OK. That’s going to happen. No matter how exaggerated you retell Friday’s winning moment to your grandkids, the fact will remain: Julius Randle made his decision when his team needed him to, and Kentucky beat Louisville in the Sweet 16 because of it.
Photo: Julius Randle/KY Forward file