NEW ORLEANS — In the city known as The Big Easy, Kentucky breezed past a second straight opponent and into the NCAA Tournament East Regional semifinals Saturday night.
UK dispatched Wake Forest 90-60 with a scintillating performance that resembled the first-round whipping of East Tennessee State. Pounding ETSU was one thing. But humbling a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference impressed the Cats.
"We just played out of our minds," point guard John Wall said. "That's the best we played all year."
Foul trouble for Wake Forest's leading scorer and rebounder, Al-Farouq Aminu, helped get the rout started. But Kentucky was clicking with newfound precision and merciless consistency, and advancement to Syracuse this week became a certainty by halftime.
A crowd of 11,966 in the New Orleans Arena watched Kentucky advance to the Sweet 16 round for the first time since 2005. The Cats got there in style. The combined margins of victory in two games here — 59 points — represented Kentucky's third biggest two-game spread to start an NCAA Tournament. Only the 68-point margin in 1995 and 62 in 1996 have been larger.
Kentucky (34-2) will play the winner of Sunday's Wisconsin-Cornell game in Syracuse on Thursday.
Darius Miller led Kentucky with a career-high 20 points. DeMarcus Cousins added 19, Wall 14 and Eric Bledsoe 13.
Wake Forest (20-11) was led by Aminu with 16 points.
Kentucky, which had won its four previous games against Wake Forest (two in the NCAA Tournament), led 44-28 at halftime.
Aminu's foul trouble dramatically changed the first half. When he picked up his third foul and went to the bench at the 11:39 mark, the score was tied at 19. Thereafter, Wake Forest struggled to score and UK enjoyed a 25-9 advantage. Wake made four of 19 shots without Aminu on the floor.
Two of those came on putbacks. The only other player with a double-digit scoring average, point guard Ishmael Smith, made one shot. Well, to be precise, he didn't make a shot. His only field goal came on a Daniel Orton goaltend.
Texas Coach Rick Barnes, whose team lost to Wake Forest in the first round, had called Smith "a one-man fast break." But Kentucky got back in transition, limiting Wake to six fast-break points in the first half.
None of Aminu's three fouls inside the first eight minutes came while he was guarding a UK player. Twice he grabbed Cousins as the big man went for an offensive rebound. The other foul came on a charge into Patrick Patterson.
Aminu seemed susceptible to foul trouble. He had fouled out of four games earlier this season and had four fouls in nine others.
"I was surprised the coach (Dino Gaudio) left him in the game," Wall said. "I thought when Aminu got his third foul, this was a chance to really go after them."
Miller led the way as Kentucky took advantage of Aminu's absence.
Miller, who had made four of 18 shots in the last four games (two of 12 from three-point range), scored 16 points in the first half. That equalled his second-highest point total of the season (against Hartford) and made his career-high (18 against Arkansas on Jan. 23) well within reach.
Miller made six of seven first-half shots and equalled his career high of seven baskets.
"Coach was talking of everybody envisioning being the best they can be," he said.
Miller noted that UK Coach John Calipari had the players watch highlight videos of their best moments. "It gets you in the mind-set of how you need to play," he said.
The former Kentucky Mr. Basketball came out hot. He scored nine of UK's first 12 points.
A post-up basket by Cousins gave UK the lead for good at 21-19. That started a 10-1 run that put the Cats in control.
The 44-28 halftime score marked the largest deficit Wake Forest had faced going into the second half this season. With the Demon Deacons ranked 312th nationally in three-point baskets per game, Kentucky seemed a cinch to not just survive, but thrive and advance.
Nothing in the early moments of the second half dispelled that notion. Wall and Bledsoe swished three-pointers. Miller equalled his career-high with a floater in the lane at the 17:38 mark.
Wake Forest called time with 16:13 left to ponder a 55-32 deficit or the off-season.