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.
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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.