Three Hits: Clutch Kentucky ends Wichita State's perfect season
MAR 23, 2014 7:06p ET
What better way to characterize a classic game, with Kentucky (54 percent) and Wichita State (55 percent) both posting stellar shooting averages in St. Louis:
1. Kentucky played the more complete game ... and was rewarded in the end
It's scary how good the young Wildcats can be when everyone is sharing the ball on offense and the defense exhibits sustainable intensity on nearly every possession.
That's how Kentucky handled things on Sunday, earning perhaps the program's most storied "upset" in NCAA tournament history. Think about that for a second.
And yet, WSU never really threatened to score, with guard Fred VanVleet (four points, six assists) badly misfiring on a potential game-winner from 25 feet out, with nary a look toward Cleanthony Early's direction.
As an aside, it's a little curious that Wichita State didn't run the final play through Anthony (31 points), since he kick-started just about every half-court possession in the final 10 minutes. In fact, his hot shooting (12 of 17 from the field) may have been the one that thing kept the Shockers within shouting distance throughout the latter half.
Overall, though, even when the Wildcats trailed by nine during two crucial junctures (late in the first half, early in the second half), the club never retreated to a pattern of lazy shots or poor interior defense.
Guards Aaron Harrison (19 points) and James Young (13 points, eight rebounds) knocked down open three-pointers during the respective rallies, and Julius Randle and guard Andrew Harrison (Aaron's twin brother) were essentially unstoppable when driving hard to the basket.
In fact, from a Kentucky standpoint, this might have been Randle's most valuable performance of the season.
Yes, he tallied just 13 points and connected on only four field goals. But Randle was an in-control bull against Wichita State's man pressure ... and when the Shockers switched to zone, Randle (10 rebounds, six assists) deftly executed swing passes to open shooters along the wings.
As such, it almost would have been a shame if Kentucky (26-10) didn't win on Sunday -- even though Wichita State's seasonal narrative had geninuely captivated a hoops nation ... and would have surely gained more steam in future rounds.
2. Cleanthony Early was practically a one-man band for a Shockers offense that wasn't so crisp in the second half
Let's extend some of the above kudos to sophomore guard Ron Baker, as well. In the final 9:57, Baker and Early accounted for Wichita State's last 21 points, with each playmaker hitting two triples during that span.
Simply put, whenever the Shockers struggled to hit a cutter flashing to the basket in half-court sets, Early was then entrusted with the task of rescuing the club. And he responded with 21 points in the final 20 minutes, including a three-pointer just 12 points into the second half.
Early also brought a high-wire element to Sunday's performance:
His first-half running tomahawk dunk with 49 seconds left sent the crowd into a frenzy and momentarily boosted Wichita State's lead to eight points. Later on in the second half, his missed alley-oop dunk with 7:59 left might have been a game-changer ... since the Shockers were nursing a three-point lead just before a TV timeout.
But alas, the senior forward still accomplished plenty to carry his team throughout a high-stakes, pressure-filled battle. It's even more noteworthy when you consider that, prior to Sunday, Wichita State (35-1) had enjoyed 34 victories of five points of more.
3. It's hard to tell if the Indianapolis hotel companies are happy or sad that Louisville and Kentucky will meet in Friday's regional
Without a doubt, Lucas Oil Stadium will be filled to the rafters next weekend, with Michigan (2 seed), Louisville (4 seed) and Kentucky (8 seed) already claiming three of the four regional slots.
But it's also doable commuter distance for those living in Louisville (112 miles) and Lexington (188 miles), or even the western half of Michigan.
As such, Louisville and Kentucky fans might play the waiting game for booking hotels, depending on the results of Friday's clash ... which should get a lot of mid-week media hype, both locally and nationally.
Speaking of Louisville and Kentucky, next Friday shall mark the second time in three years the two powerhouses have met in the NCAA tournament. The clubs also faced one another in back-to-back tourneys in 1983 (regional final) and 1984 (Sweet 16 round).
Of their last three NCAA meetings (1983-84, 2012), the Wildcats have emerged victorious each time.