LOUISVILLE – When the NCAA Tournament brackets were announced this past Sunday, the Kentucky Wildcats looked at a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup with the Indiana Hoosiers and salivated, making no bones about their desire for a rematch for the team that handed the Wildcats their only regular-season defeat, a 73-72, buzzer beating decision back on Dec. 10 in Bloomington.
Well, wishes come true sometimes. It will be Kentucky and Indiana clashing Friday night in the South Region semifinals in Atlanta, thanks to wins by both the Wildcats and Hoosiers Saturday night in the third round of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Kentucky surged down the stretch to blitz the eighth-seeded Iowa State Cyclones, 87-71, at the KFC Yum! Center, while Indiana rallied to edge Virginia Commonwealth, 63-61, about an hour earlier.
The Wildcats, of course, tried to downplay revenge versus Indiana, at least in the public eye.
“That was a rough day for us,” freshman point guard Marquis Teague said of the earlier meeting at Indiana. “We hate to lose any game, but the way we lost, that just made it that much worse. But we’ve had to move on past that day. I guess we have them again. We’re just going to come out and play our hardest. We’re not really saying anything about revenge or anything like that.”
“We are a totally different team, and so are they,” added senior forward Darius Miller of UK and IU. “We’re going to try to see what the outcome is. I know both teams will be ready to go. So it should be an exciting game.”
It would seem unlikely that Indiana will go 2-0 against Kentucky if the 34-2 Wildcats play like they played here Saturday against 23-11 Iowa State.
Kentucky showed a grit and resolve on this night that we had not seen for a couple of weeks. After Iowa State rallied from a 38-27 halftime deficit to tie the score, 42-42, with 16:28 to go in the game, the Wildcats appeared to see their basketball lives pass before their eyes, roaring away on a 30-10 run over a span of some nine minutes to dash any dreams the Cyclones may have had.
It was a breathtaking display by Kentucky. The Wildcats clamped down defensively, cranked up their transition offense as well as we’ve seen it all winter, and went bombs away from three point-range.
“Coach Calipari came up to me and told me that’s the best game they’ve played all year,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He said they can’t play any better than they did.”
You have to pick your poison against Kentucky. That’s no secret. And most teams, Iowa State included, chose to focus on Kentucky’s inside game, while giving up some space on the perimeter.
The Cyclones promptly got burned.
The Wildcats hit 10 of 20 from three-point range, including nine of 12 in the second half. That was part of a 55.4 percent shooting performance by UK, on 31 of 56. Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, no shock, were the bulls eye leaders from three. Lamb hit five of seven three-point shots and Miller was three of six.
“You have to (try) to take something away from them,” Hoiberg said. “With the way they had been shooting the ball, we tried to take the inside away. Miller had it going tonight. I thought he was phenomenal. Lamb was hitting shots.”
Miller finished with 19 points and Lamb had 16.
“We all came out with a lot of intensity, really focused on what we need to do,” Miller said.
Despite all of that talk, all parties involved said it was Teague who was the poster child for this victory for Kentucky, with clearly his best performance of the season. The numbers tell Teague’s exceptional contribution: 24 points on 10 of 14 from the field and three of five at the free throw line, plus seven assists, four rebounds and just two turnovers in 36 minutes.
When Kentucky cranked up its offense in the second half, it was Teague who ran through and around the Cyclones, dishing the ball to the right people at the right time, and, obviously, making shots of his own when the opening was there.
“I thought Teague was the difference maker with his ability to get through us in transition,” Hoiberg said. “That really hurt us. He is extremely fast with the ball.”
“I was just trying to push the ball in transition, and take whatever play they gave me,” Teague said. “They gave me the layup a lot of times tonight. Also, I was able to kick it out to the open guys like Doron, Darius, and they knocked down a lot of shots.”
Calipari was asked if this was the kind of game he envisioned when he signed Teague out of Indianapolis.
“I brought him here because I love his game,” Calipari said of Teague. “He’s the kind of player I love to coach. He is tough. I call him a pit bull. He has great athleticism and a really smart floor game. Now, for us, he could score more, but why would you score more on this team as a point guard? But today, they really left him. They left him to trap in the post. They left him on the perimeter. And I told him, look, you’ve got to keep people honest. I know you can score.”
It’s hard to know how to rank the superlatives for the Wildcats in this one. Seems a shame we haven’t even mentioned Kentucky’s own suffocating defensive effort. Iowa State came into the matchup known as a dead-eye three-point shooting team, but the Cyclones hit only three of 22 from three-point land in this one.
“Our biggest strength is our three point shot, and we go 3-for-22,” Hoiberg said with a shake of his head. “We lost to the No. 1 seed that played an unbelievable basketball game.”
“They did a great job on defense,” said Iowa State senior guard Scott Christopherson of the Wildcats. “They’re so long and athletic. They can do so many different things, switching and hedging ball screens. You’ve got to give them credit. They’re one of the best defensive, if not the best defensive team in the country.”
“We knew the key to winning this game was our defense,” said UK center Anthony Davis.
“We take pride in that,” added forward Terrence Jones. “We feel, if a team is coming back on us, that it’s because we’re not doing something right on that end of the court, not the offensive end.”
Speaking of Davis, all that Kentucky freshman did was contribute 15 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. Jones, meanwhile, had just eight points, but added 11 rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and one steal.
Freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had just two points, but added seven rebounds.
Sophomore center Royce White, all 6-foot-8, 270 pounds of him, led the Cyclones with 23 points and nine rebounds. Christopherson added 16 points.
Kentucky out-rebounded Iowa State, 40-31.