Kentucky forward Terrence Jones (3) drives to basket past Western Kentucky guard Jamal Crook (14) in the first half of their NCAA tournament second-round college basketball game in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, March 15, 2012.Photo by (AP Photo by Dave Martin)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- With 8:42 to play in its NCAA tournament opener Thursday night, No. 1 Kentucky watched star freshman Anthony Davis throw down a dunk for a 32-point lead on outmanned Western Kentucky.
At that point, everything was clicking for the Wildcats about as well as it has all season, their offense and defense seemingly in perfect rhythm to repeat last season's Final Four run.
Then it stopped. Almost completely. Still ahead by 30 with six minutes to go, UK was nearly shut out down the stretch, outscored 16-1 the rest of the way in winning 81-66. Kentucky will face the Iowa State-UConn winner in Saturday's round of 32.
Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper had some pointed advice for Big Blue: "If they want to advance and win a national championship, they're going to have to shoot the ball better from the perimeter."
For the record, Kentucky shot it marvelously overall. It hit 55 percent from the floor (30-of-54), knocked down 72 percent of its free throws, outrebounded the shorter Hilltoppers 39-30 and blocked nine shots.
But Kentucky was only 3-of-10 from the 3-point line and only two Cats -- Terrence Jones (who led UK with 22 points and 10 rebounds) and Doron Lamb -- connected from afar.
For those with short memories, a season-long struggle from the outside doomed the Cats in a 2010 regional final loss to West Virginia when they were just 4-of-32 from behind the arc.
Still, as Harper admitted, "They're talented. They're extremely talented."
Indeed, UK opened its 33rd win in 35 games on a 10-0 run, then closed the first half on a 13-3 run to lead 45-26 at intermission.
It steadily grew to that 74-42 margin, much of it built on UK's transition game following Western misses and turnovers, before UK coach John Calipari ordered his team to work on zone defense, a move he later felt led to the closing drought.
"Wanted to play some zone," he said. "At the end, it kind of got us on our heels a little bit."
Nor does Calipari seem overly concerned about the 3-point shooting.
"We just don't shoot many because we don't need to," he said. But if you give them to us, we'll shoot 20. One game (Georgia) we made 15 3s. There's another game we made one (Tennessee in Lexington). But on the season we're almost a 40 percent 3-point team (37 percent, actually). So it's dangerous to play zone against us."
It was clearly dangerous for WKU to allow the ball to remain in the hands of the sophomore Jones. Stoked by a desire to erase last weekend's SEC tourney final loss to Vanderbilt as well as charge up a Yum! Center crowd that was roughly 90 percent behind the Cats, Jones scored 15 points in the opening period, pulled down five rebounds in each half and slammed home three dunks, which had to delight Miami Heat president and former Wildcat Pat Riley, who was seated near midcourt.
"I'm just trying to be more aggressive on offense, just trying to attack the rim more and get more rebounds," said Jones, who turned his back on the NBA draft last spring to try to help win UK's first national championship in 14 years.
"What helps us win games is getting more rebounds."
But to win its next game Kentucky cannot be outscored 16-1 or 16-2 (as happened against Vanderbilt) down the stretch.
Said Calipari, not sounding overly concerned: "Look, I've got a good team; we've got good players. Let's worry about us playing as well as we can play. If that's not good enough, then it's done."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...