Mar 23, 2014, 5:31 PM EST
ST. LOUIS — For the entire season, Kentucky dealt with adversity as the Wildcats faced the pressures of being the preseason No. 1 team in the country with seven McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster. John Calipari’s team finished a disappointing 24-10 in the regular season, but with Sunday’s game against unbeaten No. 1 seed Wichita State, Kentucky had a chance to quiet its critics and get another shot at rival and defending champion Louisville.
The Wildcats (26-10) responded by playing their best game of the season as they ended the Shockers’ perfect season with a 78-76 win to advance to the Sweet 16 in the Midwest Regional.
Wichita State finishes the season 35-1, their last loss coming in the Final Four to Louisville last season.
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In a game that was rife with story lines and intrigue, in what was arguably the most eagerly anticipated game of the college basketball season, the Shockers and the Wildcats delivered.
This was the game of the year.
In the midst of a back-and-forth second half, Wichita State senior forward Cleanthony Early knocked in back-to-back three-point attempts from the right wing to give the Shockers a 69-64 lead with 4:36 remaining. Kentucky responded by pounding the ball inside using the drive — or hitting the offensive glass — on its next few possessions to draw fouls and make free throws and freshman wing James Young’s runner gave the Wildcats a 70-69 lead with 2:50 remaining.
Early (31 points, six rebounds) responded with a bucket of his own to give the Shockers the lead again at 71-70, but Young (13 points, eight rebounds) answered the Early bucket with a contested three-pointer from the right wing to give Kentucky a 73-71 lead with 1:41 remaining.
After a Tekele Cotton (five points, five assists) missed three-pointer for the Shockers, Young corralled the defensive rebound and Kentucky freshman point guard Andrew Harrison (20 points) was fouled attacking the basket and made both free throws to give Kentucky a 75-71 lead. The Shockers responded on the other end with sophomore guard Ron Baker’s unlikely banked made three-pointer to cut Kentucky’s lead to 75-74 with 29 seconds remaining.
After dominating the early part of the second half with a tremendous all-around performance, Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle (13 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) was fouled with 22 seconds left and made both free throws to give the Wildcats a 77-74 lead.
Baker (20 points, five rebounds) missed the tying three-point attempt on the other end but Early was fouled on the offensive rebound and made two free throws to make the game 77-76, Kentucky.
Andrew Harrison was fouled by Baker with 7.2 seconds remaining and split a pair at the line and Wichita State grabbed the defensive rebound as sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet (four points, four rebounds, six assists) raced across the timeline and called timeout to set up a final play with three seconds remaining.
VanVleet missed a potential game-winning three-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer to give Kentucky the 78-76 victory.
Kentucky freshman shooting guard Aaron Harrison added 19 points in the win as the Wildcats shot 54 percent from the field (27-for-50) and 44 percent from three-point range (8-for-18).
Wichita State responded with 56 percent shooting from the field (27-for-48) and 47 percent from the three-point line (10-for-21) but fell one basket short on the game’s final possession
The game lived up to its incredible hype as it might be regarded as one of the best Round of 32 games that we’ll ever witness. Kentucky finally played up to its season-long potential while Wichita State played a tremendous game despite falling just short of maintaining their perfect record.
Mar 5, 2015, 10:23 PM EST
No. 6 Wisconsin is the outright Big Ten champion, and Delaware State’s Kendall Gray went off for 33 points and 30 rebounds.
Mar 5, 2015, 8:34 PM EST
With the NBA and NBPA having different views on the limit, college basketball can only wait and see what happens.
Mar 5, 2015, 7:36 PM EST
The only sure thing at this point is that Perry Ellis won’t be on the floor when the Jayhawks visit No. 15 Oklahoma Saturday.
Mar 5, 2015, 6:44 PM EST
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Mar 5, 2015, 5:38 PM EST
Patrick McCaw has been one of UNLV’s most consistent players this season, but he’ll have to miss Saturday’s game at San Jose State.
Mar 5, 2015, 4:56 PM EST
This situation seems certain to end up in a mess.
Mar 5, 2015, 4:13 PM EST
Both Wisconsin and No. 5 Arizona can wrap up outright conference titles with wins Thursday night.
Mar 5, 2015, 3:45 PM EST
I don’t think any Indiana fans are listening at this point.
Mar 5, 2015, 3:14 PM EST
Man, this is a serious blow.
Mar 5, 2015, 2:31 PM EST
After winning yet another regular season title, Gonzaga looks to win its third consecutive WCC tournament crown.
Mar 5, 2015, 2:05 PM EST
I’ve been asked the question enough. Here are the answers.
Mar 5, 2015, 2:00 PM EST
The CAA will be the nations most wide-open conference tournament.
Mar 5, 2015, 12:00 PM EST
Can Wofford reach their second straight NCAA tournament?
Mar 5, 2015, 10:57 AM EST
Josh Speidel is still in the hospital as he deals with a serious brain injury stemming from a car accident last month.
Mar 5, 2015, 10:23 AM EST
This is nasty.
Mar 5, 2015, 9:51 AM EST
The catch: None of them were actually seniors.
Mar 5, 2015, 8:53 AM EST
These eight teams can steal an automatic bid in conferences that will get at-large bids.
Mar 5, 2015, 1:22 AM EST
Neither the Panthers nor the Tigers did themselves any favors Wednesday night, with Pittsburgh’s home loss being the costlier of the two defeats.
Mar 4, 2015, 11:59 PM EST
All of Wednesday’s relevant bubble info can be found right here.
Joe O’Shea’s off-balance three-pointer forces overtime in Bryant’s double OT win over Sacred Heart (VIDEO)
Mar 4, 2015, 11:34 PM EST
Thanks to O’Shea the Bulldogs advanced to the NEC semifinals, where they’ll take on Robert Morris.
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