TAMPA, Fla. — Kentucky saw its 71-63 victory over West Virginia on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament as exquisitely timed. Jittery January or Frustrating February would have been too early for the kiddie Cats.
March Madness? Ah, purr-fect.
"A month or two ago, guys would not have fought to get back in that game," Brandon Knight said of what UK saw as a coming-of-age passage. "If we were down eight to a good team, some guys would have laid down.
"But everybody did a great job of fighting back. That's why I love my teammates."Perseverance and willpower enabled UK to enjoy a double scoop of pleasure: avenge an NCAA Tournament loss to West Virginia last year and advance to a Sweet 16 date, possibly against No. 1 Ohio State on Friday.
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Facing its largest halftime deficit since a loss at Georgia on Jan. 8, Kentucky outdefended, outrebounded and outhustled a veteran West Virginia team that boasted two 1,000-point scorers and, in guard Joe Mazzulla, a player with 105 college victories to his credit.
"They came out and had an agenda," Mazzulla said in tribute to the Cats' second-half play.
Kentucky (27-8) rode several individual examples of persistence and effort in the face of adversity:
■ After grabbing one rebound in a forgettable 16 minutes in the first half, Josh Harrellson got seven in the second half. Two came in a sequence of shoot-rebound-shoot-rebound that resulted in a put-back that gave Kentucky the lead for good at 57-55.
"I thought that was the play of the game," UK Coach John Calipari said.
■ Two days after making only one shot, albeit an important shot, against Princeton, Knight scored a career-high 30 points.
■ As in Thursday's victory over Princeton, the Cats had to win without much offense from a leading scorer. This time, it was Darius Miller, the hottest Cat of all. Having scored double-digit points in 10 straight games and averaged 15.6 points in that span, Miller had only three points. Though it was his three-pointer late in the game that gave Kentucky breathing room at 60-55.
"I wasn't going to quit shooting," he said of his 1-for-7 performance. "I still have confidence in my shot."
■ Terrence Jones shook off a three-point air ball to post a double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds) and make four of six free throws in the final 2:24.
"Because he's growing up, it didn't have an effect on him," Calipari said of the air ball.
Mazzulla continued to be a Cat killer, scoring a career-high 20 points for West Virginia. He had a then-career-high 17 when the Mountaineers beat UK in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
Mazzulla scored 15 of his points in the first half. "He was really what was keeping them going," Jones said.
West Virginia scored the final eight points of the half to take a 41-33 lead at intermission. That marked UK's largest halftime deficit since trailing 41-30 at Georgia in the opening game of the Southeastern Conference schedule.
West Virginia, which didn't lead until 2:15 remained in the half, began the mini-run with a three-pointer by Darryl "Truck" Bryant. The shot bounced high off the front of the rim and fell through with 47 seconds left. That put West Virginia ahead 36-33.
After Knight missed a turnaround jumper, the referees called Harrellson for a foul on the rebound attempt with 19.9 seconds left.
Cam Thoroughman, a 59.2-percent free-throw shooter, made the first. When he missed the second, no UK player blocked him out. Thoroughman got the rebound and laid it in before UK reacted.
"We had a lot of dumb plays in the last minute" of the half, Harrellson said.
Knight, who did not take a shot in nearly the first 12 minutes against Princeton on Thursday, hit two three-pointers before the first television timeout. He scored 14 of UK's first 21 points en route to a 16-point half. That marked more points than Knight had scored in 13 previous games this season.
Knight linked his shooting to a defender going under the screen, which invited a perimeter shot.
"I just took advantage of it," he said.
To settle matters, Knight made seven of eight free throws in the final 61 seconds.
When asked about the mettle it took to win the game, UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua noted losses at Georgia and at Alabama earlier this season.
"Teams are going to have to beat us," he said. "I don't think we'll beat ourselves."