How sweet it is: UK beats UC in Round of 32


Guard Aaron Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats goes in for a layup during the second half of the game against the Cincinnati Bearcats at KFC Yum! Center on Saturday, March 21, 2015 in Louisville , Ky. Kentucky defeated Cincinnati 64-51. Photo by Michael Reaves

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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The Cats knew they would get a physical test from Cincinnati. It’s what embodies the team from the Queen City, whether the Bearcats are led by coaches Mick Cronin or Larry Davis, as UK’s John Calipari referenced on Friday.

But amid tough fouls, strong battles under the rim and metaphorical punches from Cincinnati, the Cats responded the way they’re known for: overwhelming their opponents with physicality of their own.

UK used its solid defense to suppress Cincinnati to 24 percent shooting in the second half, beating the pesky Bearcats 64-51 in Saturday’s Round of 32 match of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

“We wore them down I think with the platoon system and did a better job getting lower bases and making more angles for ourselves,” freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said.“They came out physical, and we started getting used to it and started playing better.”

The win grants the Cats a spot in the Sweet 16 in Cleveland on Thursday, where they will face 4-seed West Virginia. UK also became the first team in NCAA history to go 36-0 in a season.

Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison led the way with 13 points while freshman forward Trey Lyles had his second double-double of the year, putting up 11 in points and rebounds.

UK felt the pressure of Cincinnati’s tough-nosed defense in the first half as it shot under 35 percent from the field and was 2-for-9 from the three. The 8-seed Bearcats also showed no fear going up against the top-seeded team in the country, with 18 of their 24 first-half points coming from the paint.

With less than three minutes to go before the break, the Cats trailed by two and needed a response to UC’s physicality.

Enter a high-flying Willie Cauley-Stein dunk. The junior forward posterized Cincinnati freshman Quadri Moore with a two-handed slam, with Moore being called for the foul in the process. Cauley-Stein has made a habit of creating highlight-reel dunks this season, almost to the point where his teammates are surprised if he doesn’t get one in a game.

“That’s what we expect out of Willie now,” freshman guard Devin Booker said. “Now that I’ve seen it, I wonder why people keep jumping with him. It’s the same result every time. He’s just incredible.”

The 7-footer finished with nine points, two blocks and a steal.

After Cauley-Stein’s momentum-swinging play, Towns said his teammates talked about getting back to playing to their identity and imposing their will the way they knew they could. The result was a 6-0 run by the Cats; part of the final 10 points scored by UK to close out the half.

“We came in the huddle and were really upset with ourselves,” Towns said. “We told ourselves we wanted to lock down, get all stops and capitalize on our offensive ability. We needed to step up and made it our goal to not let them score one more point for the rest of the half, and we did that.”

Towns had eight points (all in the first half), seven rebounds and three blocks in the win.

UK went on to shoot for 37 percent in the game and hit 20 of its 28 free throws. Meanwhile, Cincinnati didn’t record a single attempt from the line until the second half. Davis, who has served as the Bearcats’ interim head coach since Cronin was sidelined due to a discovered unruptured brain aneurysm in December, said the free throws were the difference of the game.

“We outrebounded them, held them to 37 percent, but they shot 28 free throws,” Davis said. “Physically, we matched them and held our own. But in the end, the difference of the game was the free throws.”

The Cats’ latest victory wasn’t pretty, and Calipari knew it wasn’t going to be heading in. But the way his team responded to the physical test defines the undefeated squad, and the head coach anticipates similar games the rest of the way.

“I always like it when my team shoots 37 percent and wins in double digits. It shows them they don’t have to make shots to win,” Calipari said. “I keep saying they’re not going to do this on their terms. No one is going to surrender. If you have to fight, you gotta fight. But this team has a will and the heart to win.”