The No. 8-seeded Kentucky Wildcats grew up before the keen eyes of a nation on Sunday with a 78-76 upset of the No. 1 Wichita Shockers in an instant classic.
After a putrid first half, John Calipari's team came alive in the second half by outscoring the Shockers 47-39. Four Wildcats ended up scoring in double figures, with Julius Randle's 13-point, 10-rebound double-double leading the way. Twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison pitched in 19 and 20 points, respectively.
For Wichita State, the perfect season is over. Ron Baker poured in 20 points primarily thanks to a 4-of-6 mark from deep, and Cleanthony Early led all scorers with 31 points and played magnificently overall.
Both teams shot better than 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from deep in a fast-paced affair, but Kentucky was more physical underneath—it had a 32-23 advantage on the glass—and made a living at the free-throw line in the second half.
All things considered, the epic contest had the makings of a game worthy of much deeper placement on the bracket, as Calipari himself said afterward, according to John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader:
It's hard to disagree, as the contest has a strong chance of going down as the best the 2014 bracket had to offer.
Recap and Twitter Reaction
Right from the tipoff, it was easy to see that this one would be a fast-paced shootout.
Kentucky was able to jump out to a 19-15 lead thanks to the Harrison twins, who each posted seven quick points. WDRB's Eric Crawford put it best:
No mention of Randle. The star took a back seat to his teammates early and instead dished four assists, not forcing anything with the Harrison brothers shining. Instead, he drew costly fouls on the Shockers, as Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated pointed out:
Despite the supposed talent differential based on the recruiting class ratings, the Shockers more than held their own:
With the score 22-19 in favor of the Shockers with about 9:30 left in the first half and both teams shooting well from the field, Bobby Bones of Fox Sports Radio said what most observers were thinking:
At 30-23 on the tail end of a 15-4 run in favor of the Shockers with a little more than five minutes left in the first half, it was easy to see where this one was headed. Wichita State emphatically answered a tough question posed by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith before the run:
While frustration clearly began to set in for the young Wildcats (including two straight offensive fouls), the Shockers took advantage by outrunning them up and down the court—and often walking in from half court for layups.
In fact, while the Wildcats were dumbfounded, the Shockers simply continued to do what had worked all season, as Bob Lutz of The Wichita Eagle illustrates:
Of course, Kentucky was not without its moments. In the face of adversity, the athleticism of the squad was not entirely negated by the mental inexperience:
But just before the half, Early put a resounding end to any momentum Kentucky was putting together:
Early led all scorers with 10 points at the half, while the Shockers held a 37-31 advantage thanks to eight Kentucky turnovers, half of which were caused by steals.
Whatever Calipari said at halftime worked. The young Wildcats came out firing and tied the game at 43-43 thanks to a 10-3 run, and Wichita State's Fred VanVleet picked up a critical third foul.
In the early skirmish, Randle came alive—which was bad news for the Shockers, as ESPN Radio's Matthew Hatfield pointed out:
Randle was actually the one to get the Kentucky run started with a vicious putback slam:
With about 15 minutes left, Kentucky went on another run, this time of the 7-0 variety, to make it 50-46. It was the Shockers' turn to look like a young team sputtering in the face of a more dominant force, as emphasized by yet another highlight-worthy dunk:
Keep in mind, by the 11-minute mark, both teams were still shooting better than 50 percent from the field, with Randle well on his way to a coveted triple-double, as CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello details:
After six straight from Early, the two sides exchanged three-pointers—also known as the wild justification of the game's pregame hype:
With 4:30 left, the Shockers held a 69-64 advantage, as Early drilled home a shot from long range for his 17th point of the half.
With the aid of 14 straight points from the Harrison brothers, Kentucky took a one-point lead. No matter—Early found the bottom of the net once more to make it 71-70 in favor of the Shockers.
As if the nation was not already on the edge of its seat, James Young splashed a tree-pointer with 1:40 left to give the Wildcats a 73-71 edge. After two Andrew Harrison free throws, Ron Baker banked in a three-pointer with 31 seconds left to trim Kentucky's lead to 75-74.
From there, Kentucky nailed its attempts from the charity stripe to make it 78-76. The Wildcats watched with bated breath as a VanVleet three-pointer clanked harmlessly off the rim to finalize the contest.
Kentucky advances to the Sweet 16 for a date with longtime rival and No. 4 seed Louisville in what is sure to be another heavyweight bout filled with twists and turns. As expected, the highly controversial Midwest Region continues to live up to its billing.
For Wichita State, it's a heartbreaking defeat after a flawless run to the round of 32. Still, the program's ability to take another positive step is admirable, although whispers about the selection committee's placement will continue.