TAMPA, Fla. — Rarely has a group of young men been so happy to be going to New Jersey.
Get ready, Newark, here come the Cats. It's on to the New Jersey Turnpike and the land of Springsteen and to "beneath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light."
They call it the Garden State, you know. But to this Kentucky basketball team, reaching the Sweet 16 for Friday's NCAA Tournament East Region semifinal in beautiful downtown Newark, seems more like the promised land.
Kentucky can have its cake and eat it too, now. The pressure's off. Saturday inside the St. Pete Times Forum saw to that. Revenge is sweet, too. Never mind that only three of the current Cats played any minutes on the team that lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight last year. A score needed to be settled. And Kentucky settled it, besting the Mountaineers 71-63.
They settled it the way most scores are settled, by out-toughing the tough guys. Halftime, Bob Huggins' Mountaineers led John Calipari's Cats 41-33. It was oh oh, here we go again. Huggy was already 8-1 against Cal. WVU was scoring points above the norm. Kentucky had one offensive rebound.
No one has changed more than Josh Harrellson. A junior a year ago, he didn't leave the bench for the West Virginia game in Syracuse. Saturday, he scored 15 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and worked, and worked and kept coming back for more.
There was one sequence when the center grabbed not one, not two, but three offensive boards and ended up with a put-back that all but broke West Virginia's will.
"I thought that was the play of the game," Calipari would say later.
After all, the Mountaineers were known as the glass-eaters. Instead, Kentucky stuck it right back at them, and afterward Harrellson had the stitches over his left eye to prove it.
"I told them to put a headband on me, I didn't care," he said. "I just wanted to get back out there."
You'll trade four stitches for a spot in the Sweet 16?
"I'm down with it," he said smiling.
Remember, this was the same team that a month ago couldn't win a close game, couldn't win on the road, couldn't take a punch.
Before, when Darius Miller wasn't playing well, he disappeared. Saturday, after missing his first five shots, the junior calmly rose up and stuck a cold-blooded three-pointer at the four-minute mark.
Before, when Terrence Jones started slowly, he sulked. Saturday, he snapped out of it to snatch seven second-half rebounds.
When Brandon Knight kept missing all those shots in Atlanta, and then went 0-for-7 before making the winning bucket Thursday against Princeton, his teammates had his back. Saturday, he returned the favor. Knight started hot and stayed there, scoring a career-high 30 points.
"He carried us offensively," said Miller.
Back on Feb. 23, not sure many thought the Cats could carry it this far. That's when Kentucky lost at Arkansas to drop to 7-6 in the conference and 19-8 overall. It was the sixth loss in seven league road games, a school record for the expansion era. Rap was they were too young, too inconsistent, too soft. Sure looked like more rough road up ahead.
They haven't lost since. The Cats won three straight to end the season, beating arguably the other three best SEC teams along the way. They won three straight in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta, spanking Florida in the finals. Now, come Friday night in beautiful Newark, N.J., they will go for their third straight win in the NCAA Tournament.
Their opponent could be the overall top seed, Ohio State, but if so, all the better. Few will pick Calipari's young team to bounce the Buckeyes. They wouldn't want it any other way.
"It feels good," said Miller when asked about avenging last year's loss. "Especially that we're still playing. That's the main thing."
"We just want to keep playing," said Harrellson.
New Jersey never looked so good.
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or email@example.com. Read his blog at Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.