By Ashley Scoby
If there is a style of play that No. 1 Kentucky hasn’t seen yet, it will probably have to be invented in the next couple weeks. And it still might not be enough to beat the Wildcats.
With a 64-51 win in a Round of 32 wrestling match with Cincinnati, the Wildcats move on to a 36-0 record. It’s the first time in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball that record has been attained, after a 35-0 Wichita State team lost to last year’s eighth-seed, Kentucky.
Cincinnati took the “rough ‘em up” approach while trying to add a “1” to Kentucky’s record on Saturday. But after a first half that included five ties and seven lead changes, the Bearcats’ physical game couldn’t stop the undefeated freight train.
“You’re going against each other every day in practice,” said Willie Cauley-Stein. “It doesn’t really bother us. After the first five minutes, you figure it out. Okay, I can’t just jump up and get it. I got to check the dude before, then go get it. I’m gonna get pushed in the back.”
In that first half, the Bearcats were whistled for nine fouls to Kentucky’s four, and the Wildcats shot 11 free throws to Cincinnati’s zero.
And that was before the real fireworks started.
Kentucky took a 31-24 lead into halftime after ending the last 4:47 of the half on a 10-0 run. That stretch was kick-started by a Devin Booker layup and highlighted by a ferocious Cauley-Stein dunk over Quadri Moore, whose facial expression after falling to the ground underneath the 7-footer made quick rounds on social media.
Cauley-Stein soared up from about four feet away from the basket and seemingly flew to the rim before slamming the ball through. After that dunk, Kentucky never trailed again.
“Those are just momentum boosts,” said Karl-Anthony Towns, who finished with eight points, all within the first 10 minutes. “Those are something that gives us a lot more energy when you see someone take a lot of hard hits and make it through contact.”
“It might be worse than ole dude from Florida,” Cauley-Stein said of his posterization, one of many this season. “I don’t think they put the kid (Moore) back in the game. It was nasty.”
“Nasty” dunk or no, Kentucky still wasn’t running away with it when chaos broke out early in the second half. With the score at 33-28 in Kentucky’s favor, during a scuffle for a rebound, Cincinnati’s Octavius Ellis bumped Trey Lyles a little too much for his liking, the two chirped at each other, and Aaron Harrison was eventually called for a technical foul for bumping Ellis.
“I think that we rattled them with our physicality,” said Cincinnati’s Jermaine Sanders. “I don’t think they were ready for it. Usually they go against teams that back down, and I think that we were ready for the fight from the beginning to end.”
The teams continued to snap at each other for the rest of the game, even after Kentucky began pulling away. A three-point Kentucky lead with 15:40 to play swelled into a double-digit margin by the 9:32 mark. Andrew Harrison drove to the basket, absorbing contact, and laid in a shot off the glass to give UK the 46-35 advantage. It was all Kentucky from there; Cincinnati missed 12 of its last 18 shots, and two of those makes came in the final minute of the game when the outcome had already been decided.
Kentucky also recorded six of its nine blocks in the second half: “We ain’t blocked shots like that in I can’t even tell you how long,” Cauley-Stein said.
Aaron Harrison finished with 13 points and Trey Lyles had 11 points to go with 11 rebounds, but the Wildcats didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard. They shot 37 percent, including 4-of-15 from behind the arc. Harrison hit three of those in seven attempts.
There wasn’t much finesse to Saturday’s game (which was stuck in a 4-4 tie until the 13:04 mark of the first half). But it was yet another style of play – physical in nature – that Kentucky could check off the list of having faced and defeated.
“What they learned today is we don’t have to shoot the ball well, and we can still survive,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari. “You just want them going into every game saying, it doesn’t matter what happens. We can still win”
Up next, UK gets the winner of the Maryland-West Virginia game next Thursday in Cleveland. Win No. 37 awaits in the quest to 40.
Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York in June.
Courtesy of KyForward