Kentucky’s sweet second half ensures a Sweet 16 trip

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Just when it looked as if Joe Mazzulla and West Virginia would ruin another March for Kentucky, the Wildcats did what they couldn’t do last year.

Hit some shots and clamped down on defense.

Kentucky (27-8) held the Mountaineers to just 18 second-half points in a 71-63 win that sent John Calipari to a second straight Sweet 16 in two years in Lexington. The win served as a small measure of revenge for last season’s East Regional final loss to West Virginia, but only a little. Nearly all of the key players from that game have moved on.  

Except for Mazzulla, that is. He scored 17 last year vs. the ‘Cats and had 15 of his 20 in the first half on Saturday when it looked as if West Virginia (21-12) would frustrate Kentucky with its zone defense. But once the ‘Cats tightened their defense, it created some easy scoring chances.

They hit 49 percent of their shots and were 6 of 18 from beyond the arc. The long-distance shooting wasn’t spectacular, but marked a stark difference to last season when they hit just 4 of 28 3-pointers.

Also, Kentucky had Brandon Knight. That helped more than a little.

Kentucky’s freshman guard dropped a career-high 30 points, getting hot at the start (he scored UK’s first 12 points) and clinching it with six free throws in the final minute. It was the type of performance you’d expect from a freshman star at Kentucky.

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I wouldn’t call the win a validation of Kentucky’s season — is was the region’s 4 seed — but simply a case where the talent lived up to expectations by thriving when it mattered most. The Wildcats were supposed to do this. One more win would provide a chance to exceed expectations, though.

Next up is a likely Sweet 16 showdown with No. 1 seed Ohio State, which plays No. 8 George Mason on Sunday.

If the Buckeyes win, it would be an ideal game for fans (combined records 60-10 with 23 Final Four between the two) and NBA scouts. There’ll be no fewer than six players vying to be first-round drafts picks playing.

That’s what you call a sweet showdown.

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