PHILADELPHIA - This year, it’s Kentucky’s turn to stick around the NCAA tournament and send UAB to an early ride home.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats earned a small dose of revenge for two of their most torturous tourney losses of the past 25 years, getting a career-high 25 points from Bobby Perry to beat UAB 69-64 on Friday night.
“We’re just elated to get this win and we’re moving on,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said.
Perry scored 19 of his points in the second half, nine straight early in the half, and made all 10 of his free-throw attempts. Perry had little help offensively, with no other Wildcats player in double figures. But they needed little more with Perry having the game of his career.
“I think we came out focused even though we didn’t play the best game,” Perry said.
Kentucky (22-12) will play top-seeded Connecticut (28-3) Sunday in the second round of the Washington Regional. It’ll be the first meeting of the two college basketball superpowers.
“I don’t know how through all the years our paths have not crossed,” Smith said.
Two years ago, the ninth-seeded Blazers stunned the No. 1 Wildcats 76-75 in the second round of the St. Louis Regional and advanced to the round of 16 for the first time since 1982. UAB also beat Kentucky in the second round of the 1981 tournament — a nice chunk of its nine career tourney win total.
Paul Delaney led UAB (24-7) with 13 points. Marvett McDonald added 10 points, and Squeaky Johnson had seven assists. Kentucky only turned the ball over eight times against a Blazers defense that forced 21.2 a game this season.
“We couldn’t get them to go up and down as much as we wanted,” Johnson said. “The key was to get turnovers and we weren’t able to do that.”
Neither team could build much of a lead. With Kentucky seemingly safe in the final minute, McDonald hit a 3-pointer with 19.2 seconds left to make it 67-64.
Rajon Rondo, a 57 percent free-throw shooter, missed one of two free throws. McDonald fired away from the top of the 3-point arc and missed. The Wildcats grabbed the rebound — a huge difference in this one as they had a 47-38 edge on the boards — and finally the game was theirs. Rondo had 10 rebounds for Kentucky.
“We ran out of time and that’s my fault,” UAB coach Mike Anderson said. “I’ll take the blame for this loss. I told them I’ve lost seven games this year, they’ve won 24.”
The other eye-popping number came at the line. Led by Perry’s perfect effort, Kentucky went 26-for-30. UAB only 9-for-17. Both teams were awful from 3-point range also, with each making only five and Kentucky (25) taking one more attempt.
“If we make shots and free throws, it’s a different game,” Anderson said.
The win made the Wildcats 3-0 in Philadelphia — yup, the similarly nicknamed Arizona and Villanova also won its first-round games.
“It wasn’t a pretty game, but it’s not about how pretty you look, it’s about surviving and winning,” forward Randolph Morris said.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Perry got rolling early, though. His ninth straight point gave the Wildcats a 41-37 lead. He snapped a tie game with a 3-pointer to make it 50-47, then hit another that made it 61-56 with 5:23 left.
“We needed a leader to step up, and he stepped up big for us,” Rondo said.
The five-point cushion was exactly what the Wildcats needed to hold on an advance to the second round.
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