Sweet 16 Friday Recap: Veterans Set Up Young Wildcat's Heroics

March 26th, 2011
Countless times over the past few weeks Kentucky head coach John Calipari has noted that his upperclassmen deserve some of the credit for the Wildcats' improved play as many rush to credit the highly-touted freshman class. Friday night was just the latest example of what the veterans mean to the team but when the game is on the line the basketball will end up in the hands of a freshman. Just as he did in the second round against Princeton Brandon Knight struggled offensively, shooting 2-for-9 over the first 39 minutes of the game. And just as he did against the Tigers Knight came up big when it mattered the most, this time knocking down a jumper from the right elbow with five seconds remaining to give Kentucky a 62-60 win over top-seed Ohio State in an East Region semifinal.

"With the last shot Coach put me in a pick-and-roll a couple of seconds left," said Knight of the game-winning sequence. "Instead of going off I felt he gave me a lane to go right, so I just went right. And he jumped in front of me, so I pulled up, and thank God it went in."

But without the contributions of Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins the game doesn't get to that point for Kentucky. Harrellson held his own with freshman phenom Jared Sullinger, posting a line of 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. The lone senior in the rotation for the Wildcats, "Jorts" has contributed more than many expected him to back in October. Liggins was the usual dynamo on the defensive end in 34 minutes off the bench but also scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds on the night. With the freshmen and Darius Miller quiet for the most part offensively Kentucky needed their veterans and they came through. The reward: a matchup on Sunday afternoon with North Carolina, a team they lost to 75-73 way back on December 4th.

As for Ohio State, Friday night's loss is a tough finish to an outstanding season. Sullinger rose to the challenge in the second half after not being a major part of the proceedings in the first half, finishing with 21 points and 16 rebounds on the night. But as a team the Buckeyes shot just 32.8% from the field, well under their season average of 49.4%. William Buford had a horrific night from the field in his final collegiate game, making just two of sixteen shots and missing the final chance to win the game just before the buzzer. Should the Buckeyes have used a timeout? In hindsight the answer would be 'yes' given the fact that Jon Diebler had already been successful once, knocking down a three from the top of the key to tie things up at 60. But with a team as experienced as Ohio State one can't hold it against Coach Matta if he was willing to go with what the players on the floor decided.

"It was like 5.4 when it went in and it was in Aaron's hands and I saw those eyes," said Matta of the final sequence. "He was reading it. And I thought he made a great choice. We'll get a great look off and we had enough time to make a play on it if it didn't go in. I don't know who it was that tipped it away from us. But I loved the shot that he got."

Kentucky won because of their defense (Ohio State's eFG% of 37.9% was well below their season average of 56.3%) and two veterans who had no problem stepping up when the moment required them to. Saying that the Wildcats are "too young" to advance at this stage would be a serious mistake.

East: North Carolina jumps all over Marquette in the first half and coasts to the Elite Eight.
Marquette and North Carolina went toe-to-toe for the first eight minutes of the game as many expected them to the entire game, with the Golden Eagles taking a 10-8 lead with 12:53 to go in the half. But from that point forward the first half looked like the basketball equivalent to a Mike Tyson highlight package featuring his bouts from the 1985-88 period. North Carolina outscored Marquette 32-5 the remainder the half and led by as many as 31 points before winning 81-63, with the Golden Eagles making the margin closer as they refused to give up. The UNC frontcourt, and Marquette's inability to take care of the basketball, combined to turn the first game of the night in Newark into a laugher.

Tyler Zeller finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds, Harrison Barnes posted 20 points and nine rebounds and John Henson chipped in with 14 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. The Golden Eagles finished the game with eight assists and 18 turnovers, which signaled a major improvement over their zero assist/ twelve turnover first half. Friday marked the second time in the tournament that the Tar Heels have kept a team below one point per possession, and if they can do that again on Sunday Roy Williams and his team could be headed to Houston.

Southwest: No overlooking Richmond for Kansas, who relives past glory in San Antonio.
The same happened for Kansas in San Antonio as they ran away from Richmond early following a pregame "discussion" between the two teams in the tunnel leading to the floor. Kansas limited the Spiders to just 33.8% shooting from the field and led by as many as 23 points in the first half on their way to a 77-57 romp. Brady Morningstar was the leading scorer with 18 points while Marcus Morris added 13 and seven rebounds and Thomas Robinson grabbed a career-high 14 boards to go along with 12 points. Kevin Anderson didn't shoot well from the field for Richmond in scoring 13 points to aide Justin Harper (22 and nine rebounds), but no other Spider scored more than six points and you can't beat the Jayhawks that way. Kansas went into the weekend a prohibitive favorite to win the Southwest and they did little to dispel that notion on Friday, displaying a focus (outside of the silly extracurriculars) that was absent in last season's short tournament stay.

Southwest: Thanks to good execution of a baseline out of bounds play VCU advances.
Down 71-70 with 7.9 seconds remaining in overtime VCU head coach Shaka Smart called timeout to draw up a play that would result in a good look at the basket. But just as everything turned out fine for VCU last week as they won three games in five days, there was little doubt that the Rams would score. Bradford Burgess came free and ended up scoring the game-winning layup as VCU beat Florida State 72-71 to advance to Sunday's regional final against Kansas. The Rams should have sewn things up in regulation but they missed six of eight free throws down the stretch to leave the door open for the Seminoles. But at the end of regulation Derwin Kitchen lost track of the clock, failing to get up a shot before time expired.

Kitchen finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and three assists so it's tough to blame him alone for the loss however. Florida State shot just 36.6% from the field, and when the best field goal percentage defense in the country watches VCU shoot 45.3% they're in trouble. The big question that will hang over San Antonio leading up to Sunday's game: can VCU win? They've gotten this far thanks to excellent coaching an solid contributions from a number of players, so there's no reason why they should decide not to show up at the Alamodome.

Notable Performances

F Harrison Barnes and F Tyler Zeller (North Carolina)
Barnes finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and two blocks while Zeller led the Tar Heels with 27 points and 12 rebounds to go along with four assists. These two also combined to grab 14 offensive rebounds in the 81-63 win over Marquette.

G Brady Morningstar (Kansas)
18 points (7-11 FG, 4-7 3PT) , four assists and two steals in the Jayhawks' 77-57 win over Richmond in a Southwest regional semifinal.

F Josh Harrellson (Kentucky)
17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in the Wildcats' 62-60 win over Ohio State in an East region semifinal. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger deserves mention as well due to 21 points and 16 rebounds.

G Bradford Burgess (VCU)
26 points (6-7 3PT), three steals, two rebounds and two assists in the Rams' 72-71 overtime win over Florida State. Burgess' layup with 7.1 seconds remaining in OT proved to be the difference.