LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One visual made no sense: The sea of Kentucky blue packing the KFC Yum! Center, the home of the Kentucky’s arch-rival Louisville, looked as out of place as John Calipari coaching a high school team.
The other visual, however, made perfect sense: Kentucky advancing to the Sweet 16, a place that is as much home for the Wildcats as Lexington.
Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, is headed to yet another regional semifinal after last night’s 87-71 win over Iowa State in a third-round South Region game. The 34-2 Wildcats will play Indiana, which handed them one of their two losses this season, on Friday in Atlanta.
FIRED UP: Kentucky coach John Calipari (left) talks with freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the sideline during the Wildcats’ 87-71 victory against Iowa State in the South Region last night.
This is Kentucky’s third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance in Calipari’s three seasons in Lexington. Since 1992, the Wildcats have gone to 15 regional semifinals.
“Cal after the game came up to me and told me that’s the best game they played all year,’’ Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.
“That’s about as good as we can play,’’ Calipari said. “I’ve got good basketball team. I’ve got good players, but they’re a good team. They’re efficient. They play defense. They play hard. They’re skilled. I’ve just got to keep them in the right frame of mind. I want them to have fun playing. I want to keep challenging them.
“I want them to look at this and be happy but not satisfied. Let’s just keep stepping.’’
Kentucky had the upper hand virtually all night, with No. 8 seed Iowa State hanging on to stay in it.
Iowa State hurt itself where it usually helps itself most — shooting from 3-point range — missing 19 of 22 attempts from deep.
“They shoot 10-for-20 from 3-point range, and our biggest strength is the 3 and we go 3-for-22,’’ Hoiberg said. “We’re not going to win many games like that.’’
Kentucky’s strategy was to make Iowa State’s best player, Royce White, beat them, not the rest of the Cyclones. White got his points (23), but the Wildcats stymied the rest of his teammates by using their length to thwart the outside shots.
Iowa State guard Chris Allen, a transfer who played in two Final Fours with Michigan State, had a miserable shooting night, scoring 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting, including 1-for-10 from 3-point range.
The game got out of hand for Iowa State (23-11) midway through the second half when Hoiberg was called for technical foul after jawing with an official following a Cyclones turnover.
With 11:35 remaining, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (15 points, 12 rebounds) drained the two free throws for the technical to put Kentucky up 57-44, its largest lead of the game. A moment later, Darius Miller (19 points) buried a 3-pointer for a 60-44 lead and moments later, two Miller free throws made it 62-44 with 10:24 remaining in the game.
The free throws capped a frenetic 20-2 run in a span of six minutes by Kentucky after the game had been tied 42-42.
Once the Wildcats took the large lead it seemed to liberate their players even more. Marquis Teague (24 points) and Doron Lamb (16 points) hit 3-pointers then jump shot shots by Miller and Lamb again gave Kentucky a 72-52 bulge with 7:17 left.
Two consecutive layups by Teague then made it 76-52 and garbage time had set in.
By night’s end, it all made sense: The winningest team in college basketball with the most talented team in the country continued its march deeper into March.
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