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March 23, 2014

Cat beat Wichita State, advance to Sweet 16

ST. LOUIS -- That shot hung in the air, and so much hung in the balance.

There was a tale of two seasons told in the moments after Wichita State's Fred VanVleet let fly with a buzzer-beating three-pointer in Sunday's NCAA Midwest Region Round of 32 game.

Had it swished, his top-seeded Shockers' run toward a perfect season would have cleared its toughest hurdle yet.

But it missed. And for Kentucky, that miss meant a 78-76 upset and a Sweet 16 that washes away some of taste from a sour regular season.

"It felt like five million pounds off your shoulders after the buzzer went off," Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It was just a good feeling. Everybody was yelling, super-hyped. It was a good win."

And it was a great game.

For 40 minutes the Wildcats (26-10) and Shockers (35-1) see-sawed. Fourteen lead changes. Three ties. Kentucky shot 54 percent, Wichita State 55.1. The Cats made eight three pointers, the Shockers 10.

"This was an Elite Eight game," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That's what this was."

Instead, Kentucky advances to the Sweet 16 to face rival Louisville -- the teams' second NCAA Tournament meeting in three seasons -- on Friday in Indianapolis.

The Wildcats took an improbable road to get there.

Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, Kentucky struggled much of the season. It lost 10 times, recorded few quality wins -- Tennessee, Louisville -- and generally failed to live up to preseason hype that went so far as to suggest UK might run the table in winning the NCAA title.

"They have been through so much," Calipari said. "They have been attacked, they have been bludgeoned -- 'They can't play, they're not a team, you can't do it this way.' But they stayed together. It makes you strong. It makes you tough as nails. And we just hung around."

He was talking about the season, but the same applies to Sunday's game.

Wichita State was at its best on Sunday. The Shockers got a dazzling and diverse 31 points from forward Cleanthony Early and 20 from sharpshooter Ron Baker.

They had a nine-point lead in the first half and after the first possession of the second, and there were times when Wichita's poise -- most of the team's key players were pieces of last season's Final Four team -- might rattle UK's youngsters.

But the Wildcats kept making plays.

"It just proves to show we kept on fighting through all the bad stuff that happened to us this season," Cauley-Stein said. "Playing with the will to win, playing with more energy and effort. That's the game, especially in tournament time."

Julius Randle dominated for a stretch and finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds, his 22nd double-double of the season. James Young had 13 points and eight rebounds and two of the game's biggest buckets, a floater that put UK in front 70-69 with 2:49 to play and a three-pointer with 1:38 remaining that gave the Cats the lead for good, 73-71.

Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison steadied Kentucky's offense, combining for 39 points on 12-of-22 shooting. Cauley-Stein provided a defensive spark even with quiet numbers.

"Here's what's happened with this team," Calipari said. "They now are putting themselves in a position where they're accepting roles how they have to play. So we're becoming a better team. Individuals are losing themselves into the team, so they're playing better and more confident."

It took all of Kentucky's confidence -- and every bit of its effort -- to beat Wichita State, which validated its perfect start by playing a team stocked with former McDonald's All-Americans and future NBA Draft picks to a standstill.

"Their record wasn't overrated," Cauley Stein said.

Nor was the game.

The easy storyline -- the undefeated team against the one sparking undefeated talk in the preseason -- made for one of the most compelling opening-weekend matchups in the history of the tournament.

The game didn't disappoint.

"I hope it goes down (in history) as a great one," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. " I am not ashamed to come out on the losing end. I just feel, once again, badly that these guys, I can't coach them anymore this year."

Down the stretch, in the minutes before VanVleet's miss, Cauley-Stein said he told teammate Alex Poythress, "Bro, I do not like this." He could sense that a last shot was coming, that the fate of Kentucky's season would be decided on someone's late make or miss.

And when VanVleet let it loose, Cauley-Stein had the sinking feeling it would swish. That it didn't, he said, was "for sure" a relief.

But it wasn't the word Calipari used, even as he fist-pumped his way into a celebration with his team.

"If wins are relief, it's time for me to retire," Calipari said. "This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I'd hoped."


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