Bluegrass trumps Ivy

It’s been a couple of hours since I’ve filed. So now, you get a little bit more organized and considered reaction to what we saw in UK’s 62-45 win over Cornell.

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — We call it the “money quote.”

It’s the line that everyone has to have in their stories, the quote that you know, the second you hear it, will be the one people talk about, the phrase that will frame the event. Not every interview yields a money quote. This game did.

In Thursday’s NCAA East Regional semifinal, the storyline was supposed to be Cornell’s brains vs. Kentucky’s brawn.

But a something happened in the pregame interview cycle that almost no one noticed. Despite all the high G.P.A.’s on Cornell’s side and all of the intelligence between the two coaches and the gathered wit and verbosity of the horde of writers — some of them the most esteemed in the business — covering the event, nobody uttered or wrote a line as memorable as one provided by a Kentucky freshman.

“We’re here to play basketball,” Cousins said. “It’s not a spelling bee.”

And the next day, everyone was repeating it. Jim Rome. Michael Wilbon on “PTI.” Every sports talk host in America.

Cousins was money before the game, and he was money during the game. He has had more impressive stat lines than the 16 points and 7 rebounds he posted against Cornell, but he was as big in Kentucky’s closer-than-it-looked 62-45 win as he has been all season for the Wildcats.

And he was money after the game.

“We’re the bad guys,” Cousins said. “We’re the dumb kids. Just keep coming with the names and we’ll keep coming out playing basketball.”

BY THE TIME THIS GAME BEGAN, central New York was worked up into a fever pitch. Orange-clad Syracuse fans jolted by their team’s ouster from the tournament vented their frustration with their voices. Cornell fans, legions of them seeming to have sprung up overnight, outnumbered UK fans easily 6-1.

The Wildcats entered the Carrier Dome to a thunderous round of boos. Picture Nancy Pelosi walking into a Tea Party wearing an Obama T-shirt. Then picture them drunk.

Yes, UK’s talent edge was more significant than Cornell’s karmic advantage. But five minutes into Thursday night’s game, it wasn’t so cut and dried.

Cornell had made a couple of threes, UK looked to be on its heels and The Big Red led 10-2.

It was one thing when Cornell’s crowd drowned out UK’s “Go Big Blue” cheer. It was another when they shouted down the Wildcat cheerleaders. This was something else.

This was a legitimate test, against a massive crowd and an experienced team.

And where did Kentucky look to stabilize itself? To the kid they all said was unstable when he signed with the Wildcats. Let that sink in. Cousins, the stabilizing force.

Eric Bledsoe found Cousins in the post for a layup. The Wildcats got a stop and Darius Miller found him again inside. After a timeout, Daniel Orton scored on a short jumper and the Cats got a fast-break layup and had the lead.

Crisis averted.

Cousins was right, of course. It was no spelling bee. But the Wildcats did know how to spell “victory.” And for them, it starts with a “D.” As in defense. As in discipline.

With the upset winds blowing with what seemed like lake-effect force, the Wildcats didn’t try to do anything flashy. A young team in its first NCAA Tournament test against a much more experienced opponent got down and played defense.

You can talk about old-school basketball all you want. The most old-school team on the court Thursday night was this young UK bunch. This was basic, in-your-face, man-to-man, honest-to-Adolph-Rupp championship-caliber defense. The highlights were filled with high-flying dunks. Cornell’s players were more likely to be seeing swarming UK defenders in their sleep.

The Wildcat defense was tougher for Cornell’s players to solve than Hessenberg’s Theorem. In the final 11 minutes of the first half, Cornell made only two baskets and was outscored 18-4.

Everybody in the arena could do the math.

“I’ve never seen us come after somebody like that,” Cousins said.

THE SECOND HALF POSED A SECOND PROBLEM
for the Wildcats — the challenge of holding onto the advantage. Maybe the most likely scenario for Cornell victory was for UK to get a big lead and grow complacent against a team that plays smart and shoots the three well.

For much of the second half, that looked like a real possibility. Instead of staying aggressive, UK allowed itself to settle into Cornell’s game.

“We kind of backed up and tried to just get out of the gym,” Calipari said. “And you can’t play that way in the NCAA Tournament, but that’s OK. We learned a great lesson.”

Cornell tiptoed back into the game for the stretch run, with a three-pointer by Louis Dale pulling the Big Red within 40-34 with 5:42 left.

But in trouble again, the Wildcats called on their Cousins.

John Wall found Cousins for a short jump hook and the UK lead went back to eight. Patrick Patterson made a pair of free throws, then Cousins got a tip-in after the Wildcats had missed four times, and the lead went back to double digits.

“At the end we just said, ‘Look, we’re going inside. Go to DeMarcus,'” Calipari said.

Now there’s still a long way to go in the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats are to win a national title, they’re actually only half way home, and the easier half at that. But it says something that the guy nobody was sure UK could count on in the most tense situations is exactly the guy they are counting on when they need big scores the most.

WITH THE EXCEPTION OF DUKE, the NCAA Tournament now is devoid of glamor. UK is the star power. Given the teams left in this field, CBS may have more ratings riding on UK’s success than on “60 Minutes.”

But the things that got Kentucky a chance to play West Virginia for a Final Four berth on Saturday are decidedly un-glamorous.

The willingness to defend. The ability to stay in a defensive mindset even when the offense wasn’t flowing. Hitting free throws at the end (including the last 10 in a row).

It wasn’t a glamorous game, nor a pretty game. Cousins had four turnovers (though he also had four steals to make up for it). John Wall’s game, though not big from a numbers standpoint, was quietly impressive. He was dangerously close to a triple-double in a game that wasn’t very fast-paced: (8 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds).

Darius Miller was equally big. He shut down Cornell’s Ryan Wittman and maintained his new-found offensive aggression. No UK team has ever won a national title without a key Kentuckian in the starting lineup. The Mason County native is playing an important role.

Consider this defensive stat: Cornell came into the game averaging only 12 turnovers per contest. UK had 12 steals against the Big Red. In the end, UK outscored Cornell 19-6 off turnovers, 36-12 in the paint, 15-0 on fast breaks.

It doesn’t take an Ivy League degree to realize that this Kentucky team not only excels at the highlight reel, but at the grunt work of winning. The biggest development in UK’s tour de force run through the tournament thus far has not been the Wildcats’ flash, but their fundamental sou
ndness.

And because of that, the Wildcats are one step away from the Final Four.

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