The Wildcats ran away with a 87-71 victory at KFC Yum! Center to earn a third consecutive appearance in the Sweet 16. The Wildcats will play Indiana, the South Region’s No. 4 seed, in Atlanta in a rematch of the Hoosiers’ buzzer-beating one-point victory on Dec. 10.
“Coach Cal told me after that that was the best they played this season — they can’t play any better,” Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg said, referring to Kentucky’s John Calipari.
Freshman point guard Marquis Teague scored a team-high and career-high 24 points. And the Wildcats’ defense held the Cyclones to 3-of-20 shooting from three-point range. Kentucky, on the other hand, made 10 of 20.
Calipari, arguably the best recruiter of the modern era, saw his team briefly challenged by one talented prospect he could not lure to Lexington. Royce White, a Minneapolis native, could have been a Wildcat had he boarded a plane to Lexington two years ago. But because of a fear of flying and a child on the way, White never got on that plane, and the sophomore became Iowa State’s leader in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals.
Largely because of White, who scored 23 points, Kentucky watched an 11-point halftime lead vanish during the first four minutes of the second half. It took Calipari all of 28 seconds in the second half to call a timeout after White converted an easy dunk. Soon after, Chris Allen converted a three-point play and the deficit was reduced to six.
Thirty seconds later, White was on the move again, powering past Anthony Davis for a resounding dunk that prompted Calipari to call another timeout. After yet another three-point play by White, Scott Christopherson buried a three-pointer and then tossed in a reverse layup to tie the score at 42.
But the Wildcats played the next six minutes at a different speed. Terrence Jones began the run with a resounding dunk. Less than two minutes later, Jones threw an alley-oop pass to Davis for another.
The next few minutes included a flurry of Kentucky highlights, including a reverse layup by Teague and two three-pointers by Darius Miller.
One of the compelling subplots during Kentucky’s dominant season has been the evolution of Teague, who has not been asked to provide an offensive punch as much as previous Calipari-coached point guards have the past four seasons.
But when Teague struggled to find his offensive niche during the SEC tournament, Calipari spoke to the freshman one night and urged him to shoot freely if defenders continue to play off him at the three-point line.
As if the Wildcats needed another capable offensive threat, Teague erupted for 13 points — four more than his season average — in the first half alone.
“I just tried to push the ball and take whatever shot they gave me,” he said. “They gave me a lot of layups.”
Said Calipari: “He could score more. But on this team, why would you score more as a point guard? He doesn’t have to.”
But as strong as the Wildcats looked early, the Cyclones stormed back and forced Calipari to take a timeout with seven minutes to play in the first half after Melvin Ejim made a three-pointer from the top of the circle.
Teague made back-to-back baskets late in the half to put the Wildcats back up by 10 points. The Cyclones finished the half with no second-chance points or points in transition, and they made just 1 of 8 three-point attempts — a sign of things to come.