The Kentucky Wildcats' 62-45 Sweet Sixteen victory over the Cornell Big Red, while not always a thing of beauty, was certainly a study in contrasts: We saw the vast difference in a motivated group of 'Cats, versus a seemingly disinterested UK squad of lead-killers. Perhaps the youth of this Kentucky team is the impetus behind the 'Cats taking their boot off the throat of a near-dead victim (something they've struggled with all year), but that same youthful talent demonstrated why all those with a microphone or by-line trumpet this Kentucky team as the most gifted group in the nation.
And it all starts with their defense, and ends with their offensive decision-making. For 21:08 of last night's contest, Kentucky played on the defensive end about as well as one can expect -- Have no illusions, the 'Cats' demonstrably dominant "D" is the motor that runs the title-chasing train -- That much is clear, and indisputable. For 21:08 of last night's contest, Kentucky fulfilled the potential we all know is there, beating beneath the blue and white jerseys. For 21:08 of last night's contest, Kentucky was most assuredly the "good kitty" version of the 'Cats ... it's the other, less attractive "bad kitty" persona that seems to get in the way of 40-minutes of perfection.
Through the first 4:34 of the first half, in which Big Red built a 10-2 lead on UK, it was obvious to all that Cornell was not intimidated by their more talented competition. And with Kentucky missing layups and long-range shots with similar consistency, Big Blue Nation felt a slight tightening of multiple orifices throughout their collective Big Blue bodies.
But that all changed, and changed with the quickness of a John Wall super-sonic trip to the rim. Over the remaining 15:16 of the first half, UK put the clamps on Big Red's mojo, and showed the entire nation who's the boss. With stifling defense, powered by UK's speed and length, the 'Cats went on an epic 30-6 scoring run, essentially icing the game in the initial stanza. Statistically it looked like this:
- Cornell was 3-10 from the field (0-4 from beyond the arc).
- Cornell committed 11 turnovers.
- Kentucky was 13-22 from the field (2-8 from three-point range), 11-14 on two-point shots.
- Of UK's 13 made shots, eight were either dunks or layups.
- Kentucky recorded seven steals.
- Kentucky committed only three turnovers.
When Kentucky plays defense as they played over the final 15:16 of the first half, there is no team remaining in the tournament that can stay within shouting distance of "good kitty." The aggressive nature and nearly flawless execution, both on the perimeter and on the blocks, of the 'Cats first half defense was surely a sight unseen in a Kentucky uniform since the "SuffoCats" wreaked havoc during the 2003 season.
Darius Miller was simply outstanding in holding Big Red's leading scorer, and resident sharp-shooter, Ryan Wittman, to nearly zero touches, and less than zero open looks. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe's anticipation skills closed the passing lanes, and DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson owned the inside. A team effort, about that there is no doubt.
But as sure as night follows day, UK eased-up in both intensity and execution in the second half, resulting in an ever evaporating lead, and renewed confidence within the once-beaten Big Red. Settling for the three-pointer much too often, Kentucky's mis-fires fueled Cornell's unexpected comeback, tightening the once ballooning margin, giving Cornell a punchers chance.
Bringing the margin to only 40-34 with 5:42 left in the game, Cornell positioned themselves for a crowd-pleasing end-game run, but UK, as they have all year, responded with a "not so fast my friend ..."
Over the final 5:42 of the contest, the 'Cats channeled "good kitty" to a devastating degree:
- Cornell was 3-7 (1-4 threes) from the field.
- Cornell committed two turnovers.
- Kentucky made 4-8 shots (0-1 treys).
- Kentucky grabbed five offensive rebounds.
- Kentucky committed only one turnover.
- Kentucky recorded two steals.
- Kentucky made 14-16 free throws.
- Kentucky outscored Cornell 22-11.
What is it? ... Will to win? ... Refuse to lose? Whichever phrase or adage one chooses to employ to explain UK's uncanny ability to turn it on when game circumstances dictate, is truly amazing, while at the same time, maddening. But since we are now in the twilight of the season, there is no time to berate, or complain, there is just time to accept this team for what it is -- Overly talented, with a hint of Dennis the Menace ... just enough of a hint to keep games interesting, and fans free from relaxation.
For the combined 21:08 of UK's "good kitty" run (the final 15:16 of the first half, and the final 5:42 of the second), the 'Cats were simply majestic:
- Kentucky outscored Big Red 52-13.
- Kentucky was 17-30 (56.7%) from the field (2-9 threes).
- Kentucky was 15-21 on two-point shots (71.4%).
- Kentucky recorded nine steals.
- Kentucky committed only four turnovers.
- Cornell made only 6-17 shots (35.3%) from the floor (1-8 threes).
- Cornell committed 13 turnovers.
Look at that closely ... UK held Cornell to only 17 shots in just over 21-minutes of action. For those not schooled in the intricacies of basketball, the opponent can't score, if they don't shoot.
In the remaining 19:52 of the game, UK's disinterest is revealed. And while Cornell didn't make a high percentage of their shots, Big Red found themselves with open looks much more often, and they found themselves freed from the shackles of Kentucky's long-armed, long in the lane defense.
- Cornell was 10-31 from the field (4-13 threes).
- Cornell committed only two turnovers.
- Kentucky made only 5-20 shots (1-7 threes).
- Kentucky pilfered the ball only three times.
- Kentucky committed nine turnovers.
Where before Cornell took 17 shots in 21-minutes, in the other, less-attractive 20-minutes of action, Big Red took 31 shots. The disparity in UK's defensive execution, along with their offensive patience, is clearly defined, when comparing the two time-frames.
We all know what this team is capable of, and with UK's most important game in the last five years upon us, it's time these 'Cats committed themselves to 40-minutes of excellence. Because that's what it takes to successfully compete at this level, and if Kentucky, with all their talent, opts to challenge themselves for a full contest, then they are only 120-minutes away from culminating their journey as the winners we all know them to be.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!