by Rachel Stern
While the nation is captivated by the David vs. Goliath match-up of No. 12 Cornell and No. 1 Kentucky, there is another game to be played first here at the Carrier Dome.
People may look past this match-up because of the hype surrounding tournament sweetheart Cornell, but this first game features two of the hottest teams in college basketball. No. 11 Washington, who many thought were on the bubble entering selection Sunday, heads into tonight’s Sweet Sixteen with nine straight victories.
No. 2 West Virginia has reeled off eight straight, including the Big East tournament championship a few weeks ago. After starting the season 11-0, the Mountaineers slowed down a bit midseason, but have picked a perfect time to get hot.
Led by Da’Sean Butler and his 17.5 points per game, the Mountaineers will look to slow down Isaiah Thomas and big man Quincy Pondexter’s high-flying Huskies.
Then, the game everyone has been waiting for will take center stage here at the Dome. Cornell and Kentucky are set to tip at 9:57 p.m.
No. 11 Washington vs. No. 2 West Virginia
– The West Virginia band is ready to go. They have been rocking out for about 20 minutes.
– Bob Huggins, in his patented black wind suit, is relaxed before tip off. He is chomping on a stick of gum and watching Washington warm up with his legs crossed.
– With the Cornell-Kentucky tip off at least two and a half hours away, the most popular color inside the Dome is red.
–Washington speedster Isaiah Thomas shakes hands with Da’Sean Butler and then salutes the Washington crowd across from his bench.
– Washington controls off the tip.
– Thomas may be small, listed at a generous five-foot-eight, but he doubles West Virginia big man Wellington Smith down low and forces him to travel. He is small but feisty.
– After Devin Ebanks throws a successful alley oop pass he pumps his fist toward the Washington crowd and says, “Let’s go.”
– Even though Mountaineer starting point guard Darryl Bryant is out with a broken foot, Huggins does not start back up point Joe Mazzulla.
– The Huskies have come out possessed. They are double-teaming Butler in the backcourt and he is not happy. Butler has a word with the referee before a West Virginia timeout. The pressure has caused four Mountaineer turnovers in the first five minutes. 4-2 Huskies.
– Thomas sneaks into the post again and intercepts the entry pass. He gets it up to Justin Holiday who finishes with a pull up jumper from the right wing. Holiday is the older brother of Philadelphia 76er’s rookie Jrue Holiday.
– Huggins is not happy. At a time out he gets in the face of West Virginia forward Cam Thoroughman. Huggins points at him and is barking orders. At 11:52, Huskies lead 8-6.
– Both teams are struggling to settle down. West Virginia has seven turnovers and the Huskies have committed five.
– Out of the timeout Kevin Jones misses a bunny and Huggins storms down the sideline. After a Mazzulla three barely draws iron and the Huskies convert on an easy lay up in transition Huggins yells at his bench and subs out Jones and Thoroughman.
– Butler thinks he gets a clean steal but is called for the foul. He runs over to the ref and says, “Come on man,” and gives him a tap on the butt. 10-8 Huskies at 8:52. Baskets are hard to come by in the early going.
– With eight minutes to play in the first half the Huskies are up 12-10. West Virginia is shooting 28 percent and Washington is shooting 33 percent. The Mountaineers have committed eight turnovers compared to seven for the Huskies.
– The two sidelines are polar opposites. Huggins paces the sideline with his hands on his hips. Lorenzo Romar appears calm and watches with his hands in his pockets. Not to mention the opposite in wardrobe.
– Holiday hits a three off the kick out from Thomas. Any time a Huskie gets in the paint he is met by three or four Mountaineers. Somehow Thomas finds Holiday waiting on the arc and he buries it. Holiday holds up three fingers to the Washington crowd. 20-16 Huskies with five minutes to play.
– Deniz Kilicli enters the game for West Virginia and he is met with cheers all around. The Turkey-native appears to be a fan favorite.
– At the 4:27 mark Quincy Pondexter picks up his third foul when Kevin Jones draws the offensive foul.
– And here come the Mountaineers. The Dome is the loudest it has been all night. After a couple quick West Virginia buckets the Huskies drop into a zone.
– Kilicli hits a turn around hook shot and the crowd absolutely erupts. The big fella with a full beard shows some touch on the inside. With three minutes to play Washington is up 24-23.
– The West Virginia faithful absolutely love Kilicli. He hits another hook shot and the Mountaineer fans come to their feet. Huskies by two, 1:37 to play in the half.
– With the half coming to a close Mountaineer forward Wellington Smith came up with the ball off a Washington block. He heaved up a deep three pointer with three seconds left on the clock. When the horn sounded Huggins stood with his hand on his hip staring down Smith. After a brief stare-down Huggins started yelling and pointed at the clock.
– At the half the Huskies are up 29-27.
– After a cold start the scoring picked up for both teams. At the half Washington is shooting 48 percent from the floor and the Mountaineers are shooting 43 percent.
– A messy first half resulted in 24 turnovers between the two teams.
– The Big Red are officially in the building. The team just filed into their seats and fans are coming up to them asking for autographs. The stands are slowly becoming a sea of red here, as the Cornell campus is a mere 60 miles from the Dome.
– Jrue Holiday leads all scorers with 10 points and he backcourt mate Isaiah Thomas has seven. The key will be for Pondexter to impact the game despite having three fouls at the break.
– Fan favorite Deniz Kilicli has six points in only five minutes for the Mountaineers.
– After a relatively quiet first half, Da’Sean Butler heads right to the block to start the second half. He gets the ball and hits a turnaround jumper. He then hits a three and skips back on defense. The Mountaineers are up three.
– A 9-4 Mountaineer run to start the second half has Lorenzo Romar mad. He claps his hands furiously and calls a timeout at the 16:40 mark.
– Already short at the point guard spot, Mazzulla picks up his third foul and all Huggins can do is throw his hands in the air.
– Butler is called for a foul in the backcourt and he disagrees. Butler laughs and claps his hands, while Huggins yells at the ref, “No he didn’t.” Washington is up one with 15 minutes to play.
– Cornell shooting guard Ryan Wittman is as laid back as anyone. He is dancing along to the West Virginia band and laughing it up.
– Kevin Jones he has some outside touch, as well. He cans a three from the right wing and does a Butler-esque skip back on defense. Mountaineers up two with 14 minutes to play.
– After Pondexter gets free in the post, Wellington Smith comes out of nowhere and blocks his shot. The West Virginia crowd gets on their feet. Maybe he is out of Huggins’ dog house? Mountaineers by seven.
– The Syracuse-Butler score is announced and Cuse has a four-point lead. The crowd cheers for the Orange.
– The Mountaineers have gone on a 9-3 run over the last four minutes to stretch the lead to nine with 12 minutes to play. Devin Ebanks has come alive for the first time all night and has scored four points during that run. This is a dangerous time for Washington, as the Mountaineers appear to be pulling away.
– The ref must tell Huggins to calm down. Huggins thought he got the timeout call, but a jump was called. The Huskies desperately need a score here, as the Mountaineers lead 50-41 with 10 minutes to play.
– Butler goes crashing to the ground and is lying on the ground in a heap rolling around in pain. But he pops up and checks his hand as he skips down court.
– The Mountaineer crowd is booing like crazy after Ebanks misses a put back and thinks he got fouled. Ebanks jumps up and down. But the refs make up for it after it appears Butler drove into Pondexter, but he is called for a block. Romar is T’ed up and the Huskies are out of sorts. West Virginia by 13 with eight minutes to play.
– The crowd is in disbelief when it is announced that Syracuse lost to Butler. An overwhelming groan takes over the Dome.
– Even the Huskie cheerleaders appear to have lost faith. They clap unenthusiastically when they perform during a timeout. One cheerleader completely messes up a backflip.
– The Mountaineers are too big and too long. They get multiple chances on the glass and are out rebounding the Huskies 41-26. West Virginia is up eight with six minutes to play.
– Romar tries to pump up his crew when the Mountaineers call a timeout. He meets his team halfway out on the court and claps it up.
– Butler can literally do it all. He scores in the post. He scores from the outside. And he breaks the Huskie press by himself. He is causing matchup problems for the Huskies as a much smaller Venoy Overton yells to the ref praying for a foul when Butler takes him down to the block. Mountaineers by 11, four minutes to play.
– The long and lanky Mountaineers are killing Washington on the glass. Stat of the game thus far: West Virginia has 15 second-chance points, Washington has zero.
– Isaiah Thomas fouls out with 2:41 to play. He hangs his head and slowly walks to the end of the bench in the last seat.
– After another put-back by Flowers off his own miss the West Virginia faithful can feel the victory. So can the Mountaineers as Jones and Butler slap hands and smile. Mountaineers by 15 with 1:23 to play.
– Joe Mazzulla holds up three fingers as the final buzzer sounds. Why three? After a 13-point victory for the Mountaineers they are three games away from a national championship.
– Final score West Virginia 69, Washington 56.
No. 12 Cornell vs. No. 1 Kentucky
– And now for the main event. The matchup everyone has been waiting for. The Dome has turned into Newman Arena as the crowd is all red except for two small factions of blue. Can another No. 1 seed get knocked off tonight?
– Kentucky takes the court first as they are met with loud boos. It is the loudest the Dome has been all night.
– One minute later there is an eruption of cheers as the Big Red take the floor. The crowd chants, “Let’s go Red!”
– John Wall does not appear to be bothered. He is loving every moment of the “us against them” atmosphere. He smiles and laughs as he nods his head up and down in layup lines.
– Wall even has time to give Devin Ebanks a high five as he leaves the floor.
– Kentucky takes the floor with five minutes to go until tip off. They are greeted by chants of, “Overrated!”
– As every Kentucky player is introduced he is met by an onslaught of deafening boos. The loudest boos are reserved for John Wall, who is announced last.
– The crowd is on its feet to start the game. DeMarcus Counsins has at least 20 pounds on Cornell big man Jeff Foote.
– The crowd goes nuts when John Wall is called for the offensive foul. Jon Jaques steps in front of Wall.
– Foote backs down Counsins and finishes with a soft hook shot. The crowd literally goes wild. But Cousins answers right back down low. 2-2, three minutes in.
– Ryan Wittman starts off right where he left off against Wisconsin. The Ivy League player of the year drains a three from the top of the key. Louis Dale chips in with a three of his own and the Big Red are out to a 10-4 lead. I don’t think the Dome has been this loud all season.
– Calipari pleads with his squad to pick up the defense. He is literally on the sideline in a defensive stance with his hands going wild. Wall answers and picks off a pass and is fouled on his way to the hoop.
– Cousins’ size inside is wearing on Foote here early. He has all six of the Wildcats’ points.
– The Wildcats have answered Calipari’s request. They are smothering Cornell on the defensive end, getting a hand on every pass. Darius Miller has a hand on Wittman at all times. He does not even look at his surroundings, just stares at Wittman.
– The crowd is not just loud, they are harsh. Chants of, “John Wall sucks,” fill the air.
– Eric Bledsoe is fast. And crafty. He fakes out his man, crosses him up and lays in a scoop shot. 16-12 Kentucky with eight minutes to play in the first.
– Big Red head coach Steve Donahue likes to use a lot of guys. He is constantly subbing guys in and out.
– Cousins puts on a spin move in the post that completely freezes Cornell forward Mark Coury. He finishes with a two-handed slam. 18-14 Wildcats.
– The Wildcats get up and down the court so fast. Wall soars up for the board and with one dribble gets it up to Patrick Patterson who finishes with a slam. Cornell is struggling to score.
– Wall slashes through the Cornell defense and gets up court in just a couple dribbles. He is so fast with the basketball. The Wildcat athleticism is on full display. They poke the ball away from Wittman and Wall finishes with a two-hander. Timeout Cornell. 26-16 Kentucky, three minutes to play in the half.
– Donahue is shuffling guys in and out desperately trying to match the athleticism of the Wildcats. He motions for Jaques to check in, then calls him back, then tells him to check in again.
– Though just occupying about two sections of the entire Dome, the Kentucky fans are the only ones on their feet. Kentucky is just pouncing all over Cornell and making them look every bit inferior. Wall finishes a reverse layup on a pass from Bledsoe and the bench is on their feet. The Cornell bench on the other hand looks on, concerned. 30-16 Wildcats. One minute to play in the half.
– Patterson is now hawking Wittman. He sticks his tongue out as he guards him.
– The Big Red limp into the locker room. They only manage to score four points over the final eight minutes of the half.
– 32-16 Kentucky.
– The Big Red came out with energy, but the Wildcats are just too good. They closed the half on a 30-6 run. The Big Red simply cannot score.
– Known for their three-point shooting, Cornell cannot even attempt a three, as the Wildcats are smothering them everywhere on the court.
– Only three players on Cornell have scored and their leader, Wittman only has three points.
– Wall already has five assists at the break.
– Cousins’ big frame is causing fits for the Big Red. Kentucky is outscoring Cornell in the paint 24-6. And it is not just in the paint. Kentucky is getting out in transition off of their aggressive defense, leading to 13 fast break points. Cornell has zero.
– Cornell needs to score early and often for this to stay somewhat competitive. The blowout alert is certainly in full effect.
– Bledsoe leaves the game one minute in and limps down to the end of the bench. He is being looked at by a Kentucky trainer.
– Bledsoe comes right back in at the 16 minute mark.
– Cornell is hanging in there. 34-20, Kentucky.
– Wall makes seemingly his first mistake of the night as he throws a bad pass that is picked off. Calipari doesn’t care what the score is, he slaps his hands in anger.
– Donahue is trying to look for some sort of spark off the bench. He inserts reserve Errick Peck and Peck takes advantage of the opportunity. He grabs an offensive board, gets fouled and hits one of two from the line.
– Now it is Kentucky that has hit a drought. They have only scored two points in the first seven minutes of the second half.
– With Cousins sent to the bench with three fouls, Foote thinks he has a chance to score. He backs down Daniel Orton and lofts up a hook shot, only to be blocked by Patterson with two hands.
– Chris Wroblewski finally connects on a three for the Big Red. It is their first in a long time after numerous shots clanged off the iron. 38-24 Kentucky, 11 minutes to go.
– Cornell who has made a living beyond the arc is just shooting 20 percent from outside. They are 3-15. Wittman is still stuck at three points.
– Donahue is not done coaching. Point guard Louis Dale swoops in off a Foote miss and forces the ball to go off the Wildcats. Donahue claps and cheers for Dale’s effort.
– The crowd finally comes back to life. Jaques waves his arms on the bench, telling the crowd to get back into it. Two Wittman free throws put the Big Red within 12 with 10 minutes to go.
– After a pretty Wroblewski pull up jumper from the foul line, the crowd finally has something to get up about, as the Big Red pull within 10.
– Kentucky has stopped going inside and stopped scoring in transition. They are relying too much on the three-point shot. Bledsoe barely draws iron from the right corner and the crowd is rejuvenated. So are the Big Red.
– Peck again! The reserve freshman forward hits a jumper from the foul line. He heads to the bench with a huge ovation. Cornell is within eight.
– Calipari certainly sent the message to his team during the timeout: Take the ball to the basket. Bledsoe drives hard and draws a foul right out of the timeout. But he misses both, Cornell has life.
– The Wildcats are struggling to score. With six minutes remaining in the game they have only scored eight points this half.
– Louis Dale sends DeAndre Liggins crashing to the ground. Dale spins and launches a three that falls. The Big Red are within six. Five minutes to play.
– Cornell guard Geoff Reeves is not afraid to mix it up with the Kentucky big men. He wrestles Cousins out of bounds, then gets tangled up with Patterson and does not let go of the ball until the ref comes over.
– What made Kentucky so potent in the first half was their ability to get out in transition. In the second half, with three minutes remaining, they have not scored any points off the break.
– I don’t know if it is the sea of red waving their arms behind the Kentucky basket, but they are really struggling from the line. Kentucky is 7-16 from the free throw line. Two minutes remaining, Kentucky by 10.
– The crowd still has some energy left, they chant, “Let’s go red!” After an Adam Wire reverse layup, Cornell calls a timeout. The Wildcat lead is nine with one minute remaining.
– Calipari is completely befuddled. Darius Miller fouls Louis Dale with a minute to play and his team up by 11. Calipari has said this young team keeps him on his toes, and here is a perfect example.
– Dale fouls out of the game with a team-high 17 points. He gets a much-deserved standing ovation and takes a seat despite wandering to the free throw line trying to milk his last seconds of college basketball.
– After a Wall dunk he smiles and yells as he runs back on defense.
– The Cornell fans give one last, “Thank you seniors,” chant.
– The final score here at the Dome: Kentucky 62, Cornell 45.
A Cinderella will not be born tonight. Kentucky was too big, too strong, too athletic and too fast for the Big Red. Cousins led the Wildcats with 16 points. Wall chipped in with a Rajon Rondo-like line of eight points, eight assists and seven boards. It will all come down to West Virginia-Kentucky on Saturday night for a ticket to Indianapolis.