SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The dominant Kentucky which won last week's battles of New Orleans in memorable fashion did not appear here Thursday night.
In its place was the regular-season Kentucky that alternated between brilliant and bumbling.
But true to that familiar pattern, Kentucky's defense saved a game that could have slipped away. UK thoroughly throttled Cornell en route to a 62-45 victory in a game the Cats could have lost.
Instead, UK, which won its 35th game to match the program's most victories since the national championship season of 1997-98, advanced to the NCAA Tournament East Region finals. The Cats will play West Virginia, which beat Washington 69-56 in the other semifinal.
Kentucky held the Big Red scoreless for more than 7 minutes stretching from the first half to the second. In that stretch, the Cats built a 17-point lead and seemed headed for a repeat of the breezes past East Tennessee State and Wake Forest last week.
But UK got sloppy in the second half. Cornell got as close as six points down the stretch. Then UK went to DeMarcus Cousins, who delivered five points in a two-minute span to easy the growing tension.
Kentucky made itself vulnerable by not shooting well from the three-point line (2-for-16) nor the foul line (six of the first 16).
But the defense was constant. Cornell (29-5) scored a season-low for points, the previous low coming in a 48-45 victory at Princeton.
Cousins led UK with 16 points. Eric Bledsoe added 12 points, eight coming on free throws in the final 1:17.
Cornell got 15 points from point guard Louis Dale and 10 from Ryan Wittman. But Wittman, the team's leading scorer, struggled in making only three of his first 10 shots.
Kentucky rode defense to a 32-16 halftime lead. The Cats limited Cornell to three baskets in the final 15:14 of the half. None came from the Big Red's offensive calling cards: half-court precision or three-point marksmanship. The baskets were two layups off inbounds passes and a short floater by Dale that Daniel Orton goal-tended.
Wittman, Cornell's leading scorer, made only one of four shots.
That defense completely stifled Cornell, which matched its season-average of 12.1 turnovers with a dozen in the first half.
With that defense, Kentucky snuffed a fast Cornell start that brought repeated roars from the vast majority of fans rooting for the Ivy League school to upset the region's No. 1 seed.
Inside the first five minutes, that seemed plausible. Cornell made four of its first eight shots with a three-pointer by Dale putting UK behind 10-2 with 15:14 left.
At that point, UK's obvious intent to pound it inside reaped only 1-for-6 shooting and three turnovers.
No one knew that Cornell would get off only 10 more shots the rest of the half.
Kentucky took the lead in telling fashion. Darius Miller stole the ball and fed Liggins for a three-point play that put the Cats ahead 11-10 with 12:29 left. That was part of a 12-0 run that fed a pattern of Cornell turnover-Kentucky fast break that broke it open.
The Cats also sped in transition off Cornell misses. Miller got a dunk after Dale missed. Then UK separated Wittman from the ball, leading to a John Wall dunk.
Those back-to-back plays — part of Kentucky's 13-0 advantage in fast-break points — put the Cats ahead 25-16 and prompted a Cornell timeout with 2:54 left.
The timeout didn't help as Cornell went scoreless the final 4:14.
Meanwhile, Kentucky scored the half's final 11 points.
Cornell's 16 points marked a drastic departure from its earlier NCAA Tournament play. In those two victories last week, the Big Red averaged 81.3 points.
Kentucky began the second half with four turnovers in its first five possessions. But the continuing solid defense negated the possibility of a Cornell comeback.
The Big Red went scoreless for more than two minutes starting the second half, stretching the time with only three baskets to almost 18 minutes.
Kentucky's lead reached 38-21 when Cornell finally made another three-pointer. Chris Wroblewski hit from the left wing with 12:14 left. That was the Big Red's first three-pointer since the 15:14 mark of the first half and snapped a string of nine straight misses from beyond the arc.
It seemed too little, way too late to prevent a crunching Kentucky victory.
But as turnovers and misses (3-for-11 shooting in the first 11 minutes) mounted, Cornell rallied. The Big Red got within 38-30.
Cousins answered with a post-up basket.
Later, Cornell got within 40-34. Again, Kentucky got relief — and a basket — from Cousins in the post.
His tip-in with 3:53 left put UK ahead 46-34.