With no blueprint to beat Kentucky, the first power-conference team in 39 years to end a regular season undefeated, Cincinnati opted to try to wither the Wildcats with its usual gameplan—milk the shot clock, exercise its frontcourt muscle and limit opposing offensive rebounds. For the first 17 minutes and five seconds of the Wildcats’ physical, grinding 64-51 win over the Bearcats, it worked.
But with 2:55 remaining in the first half and a 24-23 lead, Cincinnati’s Quadri Moore sought to push the Bearcats’ unlikely advantage. Instead, it ignited the Kentucky blitzkrieg. Moore, a freshman with only four three-pointers to his name this year (zero since Jan. 25), hoisted an ill-conceived jumper with 16 seconds remaining on the shot clock, bricking right into the hands of Willie Cauley-Stein and triggering the possession that all coaches fear—a Kentucky runout.
Ninety-four feet later, Cauley-Stein went from straddling the opposite baseline to flushing a vicious two-handed dunk over Moore, leaving the freshman—and Cincinnati’s chances at an upset, splattered on the KFC Yum! Center floor. Cauley-Stein’s ensuing free throw put the Wildcats up 26-24, the fifth point of an eventual 10-0 run that gave Kentucky a 31-24 halftime lead, an advantage it wouldn’t surrender in the second half.
Despite some first-half struggles, Kentucky used 13 points from Aaron Harrison and ferocious defense from Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles (who had 11 points and 11 rebounds of his own) to move on to the Midwest regional semifinal in Cleveland. Troy Caupain led the Bearcats with 13 points.
John Calipari, visibly miffed but honest in his halftime assessment, knew his team had survived the first half—the toughest test it’d get of the afternoon.
“Are we up? I think we’re up,” Calipari said. “Eventually somebody has to shoot the ball against our seven-footers.”
The Bearcats, a team that averages a plodding 60.1 possessions per 40 minutes (340th out of 351 Division-I teams), mitigated Kentucky’s dominance by limiting the Wildcats’ offensive rebounds, scoring 18 first-half points in the paint and forcing Kentucky into an ugly 3-for-16 shooting to start the game. Anchored by the chippy Octavius Ellis, who stirred up tensions with his trademark physical play, and the bulky Coreontae DeBerry, the Bearcats offered unusual matchup trouble for the Wildcats.
A team with the length, athleticism and talent equipped to outrun anybody in the nation (as they have for four months), Kentucky struggled with Cincinnati’s unrelenting interior pressure and feisty switches on the perimeter. The usual sharp-shooting Devin Booker (a 42%three-point shooter on the season), missed all five of his three-point attempts and Kentucky finished the afternoon a paltry 4-for-15 from three-point range.
But John Calipari’s collection of stars stifled Cincinnati’s interior scoring and let the Bearcats clang their way to 2-for-14 from beyond the arc en route to victory. Coupled with only seven turnovers—none for the first 12:30 of the second half—the Wildcats did what they’ve done for all of 2014-2015, survived and advanced.
It may be the most exhausting test that Kentucky faces of the entire tournament, but it reinforced the same truth the whole college basketball world holds self-evident: There is no gameplan to beat Kentucky.