LOUISVILLE — No one said they were just going to hand Kentucky the trophy.
No one said just because Kentucky completed an undefeated regular season and has (approximately) a zillion future NBA lottery picks and is the prohibitive overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, people were just going to the side and say here's the hardware, congratulations, drive safely.
"No one's going to surrender," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said Saturday.
They're going to make you fight for it.
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That's what happened Saturday inside the KFC Yum Center. The Bearcats made the Wildcats fight for it.
No. 8 seed and 161/2-point underdog Cincinnati bumped and grabbed and trash-talked and did whatever it could think of by any means necessary to get into the minds of the tournament favorite and throw Kentucky off its superior game.
It worked, too.
But only for a while.
"Kudos to them for going hard," said UK freshman Trey Lyles. "But we were going at them hard, too."
So the Cats did, overcoming poor shooting, a tough day on the boards and Cincinnati's scrappiness to beat the Bearcats 64-51 and advance to the Sweet 16 round of the Midwest Regional on Thursday night in Cleveland.
Willie Cauley-Stein's thunder dunk ignited a 10-0 run that closed out the first half. Lyles produced a double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Kentucky swatted nine Cincinnati shots, the most by a UC opponent this season. And UK forced its neighbors to the north into 28 misses out of 37 second-half shots.
"That's been a lot of teams' game plans this year to come out and play physical with us, so we were ready for it," Lyles said. "It was nothing new."
And it's not about to stop now. Over the course of what is now a college basketball record for consecutive wins in a season (36), Kentucky has seen all sorts of different strategies. Spread the floor. Bomb threes. Slow the tempo to a crawl.
"They've got to run out eventually," said Cauley-Stein on Friday and the UK center was only half-joking.
The most popular blueprint has been of the body-to-body variety where teams have tried to either bruise or bother the Cats. Go toe-to-toe. Test their toughness. It's as if UK's foes know they can't go over the taller Cats, so maybe they can go through them.
Cincinnati took that to another level because that's the way Cincinnati plays and for that the Bearcats make no apologies. Their culture, as interim head coach Larry Davis called it Friday, is built on toughness and great defense. You may beat UC, but you're going to know you were in a fight.
"They didn't back away," Calipari said.
"I think we rattled them with our physicality," said UC's Jermaine Sanders. "I don't think they were ready for it. Usually, they go against teams that back down and I think we were ready for the fight from beginning to end."
Right to the end, too. Kentucky had the ball up 13 points with 24 seconds to play, the shot clock was off and Davis was yelling at his team not to foul. The Bearcats fouled anyway. They apparently couldn't help themselves.
But Sanders also said this of the Cats: "I think they held their composure and overcame it."
Yes, they did, which is why they are now 36-0.
After Kentucky's win over Hampton on Thursday, the Hampton players complimented the way the UK players respectfully conducted business. No trash talk. No chest pounding. But sometimes you have to get tough.
"There's a time and place for it," Cauley-Stein said.
There's no better time than now, especially when no one should have thought that just because the Cats were unbeaten the path to a ninth title would be a clear one.
"Coach told us we're not going to blow everybody out," said Andrew Harrison. "Every game is going to be like this."
At this point, every game, they're going to make you earn it.