Kentucky 74, Utah 54
The top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats completed their romp through the early stages of the NCAA tournament tonight without ever being tested by Utah, which they sent packing, 74-54.
With the win, Kentucky earned a spot among the tournament's final 16 and extended the nation's best winning streak to 25 games.
The Wildcats have enjoyed an easy road so far, trouncing IUPUI by 31 points and the Utes by 20. They will surely be favored to roll over fifth-seeded Wisconsin on Thursday in Minneapolis.
Said a roundly satisfied Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith: "We played the way a ranked team is supposed to. We came in, we took care of business as far as staying focused, and we shot the ball well. We also defended, and when you get in a tournament you've got to be able to do that. We're getting things done the way we're supposed to get them done."
Utah won its place in the NCAA tournament on the heels of a stingy defense that surrendered just 60 points per game. But tonight at Gaylord Entertainment Center, before a Wildcat-crazed crowd so partisan it made the Utes empathetic figures, Utah simply could not counter the many ways Kentucky scored.
There hardly was a spot on the floor where the Wildcats did not hold sway. They were perfect from the free throw line, sinking all 18 shots to tie an NCAA tournament record. They dominated inside, with center Marquis Estill supplying 18 points and 10 rebounds. And they outrebounded the Utes by 35 to 22.
"I knew I could take it to them tonight," Estill said. "I knew I could get some easy buckets."
Facing a squad that was faster, deeper and far more seasoned, Utah Coach Rick Majerus directed his Utes to slow the tempo to a crawl in the first half. But more often than not, when the Utes finally tossed up the shot that was so long in gestation, it was errant, with no Utah player in sight to grab the rebound.
It was the fifth time since 1993 that Kentucky has knocked Utah out of NCAA tournament, including the 1998 national championship game. But it left Majerus more consumed by admiration than bitterness.
"They're a terrific team," Majerus said. "They are very well coached. They play with great heart. They share the ball. They took it to us today, and I applaud their effort."
Kentucky never trailed, bolting to a 37-23 lead at halftime. For stretches, the only suspense in the game was whether Kentucky's most famous booster, Ashley Judd, would turn around from her courtside seat and notice the hand-lettered signs in her honor, including: "Will You Marry Me Ashley Judd?" and "Ashley Why Haven't you Called?"
Utah entered the tournament deprived of its top scorer and best player, senior Britton Johnsen, who was sidelined by mononucleosis. With Johnsen in street clothes, the competitive imbalance between the teams was even more pronounced inside.
"[Estill] is so big and strong, if they don't send two on him, he's going to score," said Kentucky guard Keith Bogans (DeMatha), whose shooting touch (18 points) helped draw Utah defenders away from Estill. "As long as we're making shots on the perimeter, we're not allowing them to guard him."