Walking the walk: Cats cruise past West Virginia, into Elite Eight
March 27, 2015
CLEVELAND - The talk was everywhere.
The words coming out of the Mountaineer locker room made into every story previewing Kentucky and West Virginia's matchup. Daxter Miles Jr.'s guarantee that West Virginia would hand the Cats their first loss even made SportsCenter.
The Cats, meanwhile, responded with the equivalent of a silent head nod.
Andrew Harrison broke out his trademark dry sense of humor. Karl-Anthony Towns said everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Willie Cauley-Stein had the most dramatic reaction, but even he would only say the comments added "fuel to the fire."
The Cats, no doubt, preferred to let their play do the talking.
And their play talked plenty loud Thursday night.
"We've been talking about it all day," Tyler Ulis said. "Coming out and just demolishing them 'cause they were talking so much trash saying we were gonna be 36-1 and stuff like that. We felt like that was nonsense, so we just came out and killed 'em."
In a season full of devastating performances, the Cats delivered one of their best yet on the biggest stage yet. With a 78-39 destruction of the Mountaineers, UK moved to 37-0 and into the Elite Eight, and tied an NCAA Tournament record for the largest margin of victory in a Sweet 16 game.
"I was really pleased with the energy of our team," John Calipari said. "I was pleased with how zoned in they were, with how we were going to attack the press, how we were going to finish and we were going to just, hey, if we could score a hundred, score a hundred, just play."
For a while, the Cats seemed like they might threaten the century mark.
Within the first eight minutes, UK built an 18-2 lead. Aaron Harrison, scoring 10 points, chased away any worries about outside shooting woes lingering from last week's win over Cincinnati or Kentucky's 2010 Elite Eight loss to West Virginia by burying a pair of 3-pointers.
Harrison would finish with just 12 points and briefly departed with a dislocated finger, but the tone was set and West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins' fears realized.
"Well, I think pretty much what I was afraid could happen," Huggins said. "They shot the ball really poorly the last game, and they're too good to have probably back-to-back bad days shooting the ball, and they came out and made a bunch of shots."
Rendering West Virginia's full-court pressure wholly ineffective, UK committed just 10 turnovers for the game and shot a scalding 60.9 percent from the field in building an insurmountable 44-18 lead.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, were flummoxed on offense. They shot 24.1 percent from the field for the game and at one point had made just 5-of-37 attempts. All told, they managed just 0.582 points per possession and their 39 points were a season low. UK, meanwhile, blocked seven shots.
"I feel like on some of their rebounds they try to go back up with it and they had three dudes blocking their shot," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "That kind of gets to you like, 'Dang, I can't even get a rebound and a layup. I have three dudes with their hands on the ball.' "
UK added seven steals, snagging a few in using a full-court press that actually one-upped the Mountaineers'. The Cats had a turnover margin of plus-three.
"An old friend of mine says you press a pressing team, you press a pressing team," Calipari said. "And that's why we put in the diamond press and that's why we did some of the stuff we did, just to press them to go like you're not going to be the aggressor; we're going to be the aggressor, too."
UK has always had the press in its arsenal, but overall excellence has been its defensive calling card all season. Huggins, to put it mildly, has noticed.
"They're just -- they're terrific defensively," Huggins said. "They've got -- that's the best defensive team I think that I've ever coached against."
The Cats' offense might not be good on a historical level in the way their defense is, but it's not too shabby either.
"I thought they were the best offensive team in the country," Huggins said. "Everybody kind of gets caught up in their size and all that, which is certainly a part of it, but to get those guys to play as hard and to play together the way they do, I mean, you look down there, you've got guys that, you know, are going to be lottery picks that they give the ball up, they share the ball."
Six players combined for UK's 13 assists on 24 made field goals, while more good passes helped lead to the Cats' 31 free-throw attempts, of which they hit 26. Trey Lyles hit 6-of-7 tries from the line in pacing UK with 14 points, while Andrew Harrison scored nine of his 13 points at the line. Two of the remaining four came on the highlight of the night, a dizzying behind-the-back and-one finish in the open floor destined for highlight reels.
"That was smooth," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I've never seen something like that before, especially on a stage like this. That just shows you how loose we are."
Towns might have been a little too loose, picking up two fouls in eight first-half minutes and his third and fourth within the first minute of the second half. Talked about as the possible top pick in June's NBA Draft, Towns managed just one point and two rebounds.
Imagine, then, what Thursday's performance looks like with Towns performing at his peak.
"We still gotta work on a lot of things," Towns said. "This team, just because we came out and had a great win today doesn't mean that we're at full capability and working on all cylinders."
UK will take its next shot at reaching its peak on Saturday at 8:49 p.m. against third-seeded Notre Dame, which dispatched Wichita State with a near-perfect second-half offensive effort.
"We just have to come out the same way, with the same intensity knowing that they're going to try to shoot a lot of 3s on us, they're going to try to win it at the 3-point line, but that's been the same way all year round," Cauley-Stein said. "Teams have to shoot well at the 3, so our game plan is just going to guard them at the 3, make sure they make half the 3s they made tonight. Just play with a lot of intensity because it's a big deal."