SYRACUSE, N.Y. - John Wall saw red in nearly every corner he looked. Cornell’s loudest and largest pep rally was held at the Carrier Dome and turned the regional semifinal into an instant road game for Kentucky.
Big Blue crashed the party, and avoided the latest big upset by the Big Red.
Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson stopped Cornell’s captivating NCAA tournament run, giving the top-seeded Wildcats a 62-45 win Thursday night in the East Regional semifinals.
“It got our attention,” Wall said. “We came out here and saw all that red.”
With much of the crowd — and the country — pulling for an upset by the 12th-seeded Ivy Leaguers, Cornell bolted to a 10-2 lead in the opening minutes.
But Kentucky overcame the early deficit with a swarming defense, spoiling all the fun at Cornell’s loudest and largest pep rally.
“I think we did a great job landing the first punch,” Cornell center Jeff Foote said. “They’re a very talented team. Their skill and talent is going to show eventually.”
John Calipari has the Wildcats (35-2) in the regional final in his first season, erasing much of the sting of the program’s decade-long slide from the top.
The climb back is nearly complete. Kentucky moved within one win of its first Final Four since winning the national championship in 1998 and will play second-seeded West Virginia on Saturday.
In an NCAA tournament gone wild with upsets, it’s 1 vs. 2 with a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis at stake.
Calipari said his young Wildcats must do better.
“I thought the second half, we kind of backed up and tried to just get out of the gym,” Calipari said. “You can’t play that way in the NCAA tournament, but that’s OK. We learned a great lesson. We gave them a chance to maybe clip us.”
All the fan adulation and media hype shifted to Cornell this week after brainy Big Red (29-5) stunned the field with an improbable run to the round of 16. This was no Revenge of the Nerds — they proved they could they play with the big boys.
The nation’s top 3-shooting team continuously misfired from beyond the arc and Cornell couldn’t catch up against a Kentucky lineup that could stage a reunion at the NBA’s 2012 Rookie Challenge.
After storming to two wins by a combined 59 points in the first two rounds, the Wildcats got all they could handle. Cornell pounced to that early lead, then sliced a 17-point deficit to six late in the second half.
Louis Dale hit a 3 that made it 40-34 and Ryan Wittman nailed another to keep it at 46-37 with 3:47 left.
But Eric Bledsoe hit a short jumper with one tick left on the 35-second shot clock to push Kentucky’s lead to 12. The Wildcats finally put away Cornell for good from the free-throw line.
Cousins scored 16 points and Patterson had nine points and 12 rebounds for Kentucky.
Dale led Cornell with 17 points. The Big Red shot just 5-for-21 on 3s after shooting 43 percent this season.
“Our shots weren’t falling,” Foote said. “Usually Ryan makes those shots. He had a tough day.”
Ashley Judd had her usual great seat behind Kentucky’s bench to support the Wildcats. She was easy to spot — she was the Kentucky fan.
OK, so there were a few patches of Big Blue in the Carrier Dome. But this may as well have been a Cornell home game.
Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, N.Y., is only about 55 miles away from the Carrier Dome and the Big Red faithful turned out in full force.
Kentucky was booed out of the building when it hit the court only moments after West Virginia beat Washington 69-56. The crowd roared and rattled the roof when Cornell sprinted out for warmups as chants of “Let’s go Red!” echoed throughout the dome. Some fans behind the basket boldly chanted “Overrated!” as the Wildcats warmed up.
For about 5 minutes, it looked like they might be right. Foote backed down Cousins for the first basket and Wittman and Dale each hit 3s for a stunning 10-2 lead that left the Wildcats red-faced.
Calipari refused to call a timeout, preferring to let the Wildcats play their way out of a jam. Smart move. The Wildcats went on a 12-0 run to take a lead they’d never surrender and hush the Cornell fans.
Kentucky is back with a vengeance and trying to win the regional final for the first time since ’98. The Wildcats lost Elite Eight games in 1999, 2003 and 2005.
It was quite a fun run for Cornell. Sports information director Jeremy Hartigan said he turned down hundreds of interview requests in the last week after never saying no in the last few years. The Big Red were parodied on the satirical Web site “The Onion” and acted about as loose as any team in the tournament.
The fans chanted “Thank you, seniors!” in the waning minutes in appreciation of all Foote, Wittman and Dale have done to make Cornell the three-time defending Ivy League champs.
“We’re not doing this for personal stuff. We’re a team out there,” Wittman said. “We’re going out there and having fun playing with our best friends.”
CBT: Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made it official that he'll be coaching Team USA at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and he'll also be with Duke at least that long, too.
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