ATLANTA, Ga. – Kentucky coach John Calipari’s instructions to his top-seeded Wildcats leading up to Friday’s South Region semifinal against the No. 4 seed Indiana Hoosiers was simple.
“We have worked all week on attacking the rim,” Calipari said. “If in doubt, drive the ball. That’s what we said. We worked on some dribble-drive action so that we could get to that, and we did.”
The Wildcats listened to their coach, and as a result, managed to escape with an exhausting 102-90 win over Indiana in a thrilling contest pitting two of college basketball’s titans in a battle of considerable talent, along with a level of pride and desire that was pretty much tangible.
Indiana coach Tom Crean understandably could not get away from the fact that the difference on the stat sheet showed Kentucky shooting 37 free throws and making 35, an astonishing percentage of 95.6, including 26 of 27 in the second half alone.
The Hoosiers were 13 of 17 at the free throw line.
Kentucky improved to 35-2 heading into the South Regional final against Baylor today at 2:27 p.m., with a Final Four berth on the line. Indiana bowed out at 27-9.
Asked if he’s ever had a team shoot 35 of 37 at the free throw line, Calipari said: “Probably, but I don’t know. But I’ve also had some teams that shoot 30 percent from the foul line. So I’ve had some bad free-throw shooting teams and had to figure that out.
“Let me say this,” Calipari added. “It’s a lot easier when they go up and make free throws, I’ll tell you that.”
Asked if he could have imagined scoring 90 points, shooting 52.2 percent from the field (36 of 69 shooting) and losing, Crean replied: “When they make 22 more free throws and attempt 20 more than we do, I guess that is the only way I could imagine it. I couldn’t imagine a game like this having a free throw discrepancy of 20.
“It is what it is,” Crean added. “They shot 20 more free throws. That’s the game.”
But it’s not quite so simple if you look at what went into that free throw differential. Let’s put it this way: I don’t believe it had anything to do with biased officiating.
Though it certainly helped that Calipari got his vocal pre-tournament wish from the officials: Call the games close. Even if it means foul trouble to freshman center Anthony Davis, who picked up two quick fouls and played only six minutes of the first half and 25 minutes in all.
It had more to do with Kentucky’s willingness and ability to take the ball to the rim and Indiana’s inability to defend it.
Time after time the Wildcats drove the ball to the basket, and time after time they were able to get a first-step advantage off the dribble and either pick up a block call, a hack or get fouled at the rim because the Hoosiers’ defenders were either trailing on the play or a step slow getting over with weak-side help.
Nobody took that more to heart than UK freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who busted loose for 24 points on seven of 15 shooting from the field and 10 of 10 at the free throw line. Indiana simply had no answer for Kidd-Gilchrist.
Crean’s was hoping his team wouldn’t need one.
“Tommy did something interesting,” Calipari noted. “They didn’t play him (Kidd-Gilchrist). I don’t know if you noticed, but they didn’t have a man on him. So I told Marquis (point guard Teague): ‘Give it to Michael.’ And Michael shot once and waited, so I said, ‘Give it to him again.’”
“I was kind of mad about it at first, but I got the ball and I did what I did, I scored,” said Kidd-Gilchrist, who added 10 rebounds. “That was my first time experiencing that, so I didn’t know what to do at first. What is this?”
This isn’t to criticize Crean, who has tackled one of the most difficult challenges in college basketball (given how far Indiana had fallen), and appears to have the program on the cusp of where it belongs after four seasons – challenging for national titles.
Crean is one of many good coaches who have realized this season that you pick your poison against a team with the diverse talents of Kentucky and hope it works out.
It didn’t on Friday as the Wildcats placed five players in double figure scoring, and a sixth Wildcat, Davis, had nine points to go along with 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Sophomore guard Doron Lamb added 21 points for Kentucky. Senior forward Darius Miller again stepped up big, scoring 19 points. Teague had 14 points to go along with seven assists, three rebounds and just three turnovers.
Sophomore forward Terrence Jones added 12 points and five rebounds, making amends for a bad performance in Kentucky’s 73-72 loss at Indiana on Dec. 10.
“When you’ve got talent like that, as talented as they are, it’s hard,” Crean said of Kentucky. “They’re hard-nosed young men, and I mean that with great, great respect. They can get to the rim, they can shoot the pull-up (jumper), and they can shoot 3s. And they all have explosiveness in that first step. If you’re not right where you need to be, it’s really hard to guard a team like that.”
Obviously, it’s hard to guard the Hoosiers, too. Christian Watford, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, poured in 27 points for the Hoosiers. Sophomore swing man Victor Oladipo added 15, and both Watford and Oladipo got their points largely the same way – by driving around Wildcats who appeared to have lead feet when it came to guarding those two guys. And IU freshman center Cody Zeller also was a load most of the way, scoring 20 points.
“They had more layups in the first half than we’ve had scored on us all year,” Calipari said of the Hoosiers. “Part of that was Anthony was out (the last 14 minutes of the first half). The other part was we were just getting broken down. We were playing pick-and-roll defense so poorly, and they were getting whatever they wanted.”
But Kentucky survived what Calipari referred to as “a war” against Indiana, and next up is a team with comparable athleticism to their own in the Baylor Bears.