LOUISVILLE – Fans in the extreme on both sides of the Kentucky-Western Kentucky rivalry probably came away unhappy with Thursday's 81-66 victory by the top-seeded Wildcats over the 16th-seed Hilltoppers in the second round of the NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Tournament at the Yum! Center.
The Wildcats didn't get the blowout that Kentucky fans always hope for, especially against a pesky in-state team, and Western fans didn't get the shock-the-world upset they were wishing for.
But, in fact, the game was a winner for both sides...a compromise, if you will, between the extremes. Kentucky played well enough, long enough to merit its No. 1 national ranking and overall seed in the tournament, while Western Kentucky showed it's missing only a little more talent and a lot more experience to make an impact on this kind of stage.
Uncertainty crept into the UK fan base after three relatively sluggish performances this past weekend at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but Thursday against Western, when the game was in the balance, the Wildcats dominated.
UK was leading just 18-17 with 10:25 to play in the first half and then took off, using a 62-33 run to lead 80-50 with just under six minutes left in the game.
The Wildcats appeared to let up late, while Coach Ray Harper's Hilltoppers kept playing as if the score was tied.
"I think you kind of got to see a little bit about their character and their heart," Harper said after his extremely young team finished the season 16-19. "They just wouldn't quit. They played to the final buzzer, and that's who these young men are."
"Western, you knew, wouldn't go away," said Calipari, whose 33-2 Wildcats move on to the third round Saturday to play Iowa State who beat Connecticut 77-64. "Thank goodness we were up enough that it didn't matter because that's how they played all year. They make plays down the stretch to try to win. They make shots they may not make up to that point, but their mindset is, we'll make them NOW."
But, again, for some 25 minutes Kentucky looked like a team well capable of winning the national championship, thanks to some excellent transition offense and one of the most assertive performances of the season from junior forward Terrence Jones.
Jones was pretty much unstoppable, finishing with 22 points (9 of 13 from the field; three of three from the free throw line), 10 rebounds and a steal.
"He was a beast," Calipari said of Jones. "That's how we need him to play. I told him before the game, you just worry about rebounding, and your offense will happen."
"I'm just being more aggressive on offense, just trying to attack the rim and just be more physical on offense and defense to get more rebounds," Jones said. "That's what is helping us usually win games is getting more rebounds.
"And as a team, we wanted to come off real aggressive and just try to push the ball and get a lot more fast break baskets than we were getting in the last few games. I think we got that because (point guard) Marquis (Teague) was pushing the ball and really opening up the floor for everything to happen."
"We played faster," Calipari said. "We worked two days on getting back to playing faster."
Center Anthony Davis had 16 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots; guard Doron Lamb added 16 points (7 of 12 from the field) and four rebounds; Teague had 12 points, four assists and three turnovers, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had nine points and seven rebounds, and forward Darius Miller had six points and four rebounds to round out the leaders for Kentucky.
The Wildcats hit 55.6 percent of their shots from the field on 30 of 54 shooting, and UK out-rebounded the Hilltoppers, 39-30.
Kentucky's performance left Harper impressed, but the Western coach did offer one note of caution.
"If they want to advance and win a national championship, they're going to have to shoot the ball better from the perimeter," Harper said of the Wildcats. "Doron Lamb may have been the only one. Terrence made a three. They're going to have to find somebody else that can make a shot from the perimeter."
Calipari does not appear concerned.
"We just don't shoot that many (3-pointers) because we don't need to," he said. "But if you give them to us, we'll shoot 20. It's dangerous because we can make four or five in a row, and you're down 16, 17 points. So it's dangerous to play a zone (against the Wildcats). You can do it, but what you're doing is let's hope they don't make shots today. That's a tough way to play."
Calipari also did not sound concerned about Western's 16-1 run over the final six minutes of the game.
"We had some breakdowns at the end," Calipari said with a shrug. "Wanted to play some zone in case we have to play some zone throughout the tournament. At the end, it kind of got us on our heels a little bit."
On the Western side, Hilltopper fans have to be ecstatic about the future of their program – a program that just two months ago was headed towards mid major oblivion under former coach Ken McDonald. McDonald was fired at mid-season, and Harper took over, first on an interim basis and later the interim tag was lifted by the WKU administration.
A light switch came on for Western soon after the transition.
Consider: The Hilltoppers were led by a trio of freshmen against Kentucky. Just one year removed from high school, freshmen Derrick Gordon, T.J. Price and George Fant were simply fantastic Thursday, in the NCAA Tournament, no less.
Price led WKU with 21 points and four rebounds; Fant had 13 points and four rebounds, and Gordon added 12 points and five boards. Senior Kahlil McDonald also scored 13 points for the Hilltoppers.
Calipari indicated that the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Fant was particularly a pain in the rear for his Wildcats.
"Fant really killed us inside," Calipari said. "He physically pushed us around a little bit. We've got to figure out how we're going to guard a player that just basically kind of plays a little mush mouth with us near the basket. We had trouble with that last week."
Said Harper: "Derrick and T.J. and George – you talk about three freshmen that just went up against the Number 1 team in the country, and they didn't back down one step. As they go on in their college careers, they can look back on this experience and really help any new guys that we may have in the program about how we do things and how we compete.
"So I'm excited about where we're going," Harper added. "Obviously I'm disappointed about tonight's loss, but guys, I couldn't be happier to walk back in that locker room with those guys. I'm going back with the right team."
You might gather that Harper is nearly as feisty as his players. Asked if he'd like to schedule Kentucky in the regular season, Harper said: "We're open if we have room on the schedule. I think it would be a great home and home series."
Calipari was evasive, at first responding that his assistant coach John Robic does UK's scheduling.
"I think we're probably almost full for next year," Calipari said. "We will play some of the Kentucky teams. That's good for both programs. But at this point, I don't know."