It was a game that had been hyped since the brackets came out -- before either team had even moved into the third round. For all the hype, the Midwest region round of 32 contest between Kentucky and Wichita State easily could have been a dud. It wasn’t. For almost the full 40 minutes, both teams matched each other blow for blow, with the eighth-seeded Wildcats outlasting the top-seeded Shockers, 78-76, on Saturday.
The game was a track meet from the start, and Kentucky trailed 37-31 at the break. After a quick three-pointer by Wichita State's Cleanthony Early to start the second half, the Wildcats flipped the switch. Julius Randle had a putback dunk, Aaron Harrison hit a three and Randle picked up an and-one and the lead was back down to one. UK went ahead on an Alex Poythress layup, but Ron Baker grabbed it back for the Shockers with an and-one.
It was call-and-response basketball at a frenetic pace from there. Every time Kentucky would hit a big shot, Early would respond. Whenever Baker would drain a three, a Harrison brother (Andrew: 20 points, Aaron: 19 points) or James Young would answer right back for the Wildcats.
Randle (13 points) took over at times and showed why he’s such an intriguing NBA prospect. He displyed good vision down low, finishing with six assists. He collected 10 rebounds. He even put the ball on the deck, finishing a spin move and drawing a foul to put Kentucky up 53-49 with just under 12 minutes to play.
It was Early, though, who looked like the best player on the floor. He finished around the rim, got out in transition, hit deep shots and at one point in the first half, put Willie Cauley-Stein on a poster with an impressive dunk. He finished with 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting.
Early's three-pointer with 4:36 remaining put the Shockers up by five at 69-64 but Kentucky scored the next six points, capped by a runner from Young, to go up by a point at the 2:49 mark. Early go the lead back for Wichita State with a jumper only to have Young answer with a three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 73-71 lead. Kentucky was still up by two when Fred VanVleet rose up for what would have been a game-winning and season-saving three-pointer as the clock expired, but his shot missed.
The entire game was a contrast of styles, a contrast of philosophies and a contrast of seasons. Wichita State was coming off a Final Four appearance and had seen everything go right. A 34-0 regular season. A year so easy people had to invent reasons why the Shockers weren’t as good as their undefeated record. (As if a team that went 34-0 could be a pretender in the first place.) Somehow the one-seed was framed as an underdog in its second game of the tournament, and the Shockers were just fine with letting people think that. Even with the loss on Sunday, this season was still a huge accomplishment.
On the other side was Kentucky, an elite group of recruits who experienced natural growing pains. For all their talent, the Wildcats were as infuriating as they were inconsistent. Kentucky’s five most important contributors by percentage of possessions used were all freshmen. And all five of those freshmen were five-star recruits according to Rivals. Expectations were so great for the nation's preseason No. 1 team that there were T-shirts printed up that said 40-0.
Calipari’s Wildcats have grown up an awful lot, awful fast. Now they get to go to Indianapolis to play rival Louisville in the Sweet 16. Kentucky won the earlier meeting this year, 73-66, in Rupp Arena, and handed the Cardinals their most recent NCAA tournament loss, in the Final Four two years ago. As they proved again on Sunday, the Wildcats may not be done handing teams rare defeats.
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