Mark Story

Mark Story: Big Cuz spelled defeat for Big Red

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A basketball game, not a spelling bee.

That was DeMarcus Cousins's pre-game description of Kentucky's showdown with the brainiacs of Cornell in the NCAA Tournament East Region round of 16.

Yet in what proved to be an ugly game played at a hyper level of intensity, Kentucky spelled survival B-I-G C-U-Z.

The Cats prevailed in the game that the nation saw as ballers vs. scholars Thursday, 62-45, thanks in large part to the large man who mans the middle for UK.

"I really didn't get into all that," Cousins said of the pre-game talk of Cornell MBAs vs. Kentucky NBA. "That's just talk. ... They're a good team and they deserved to be here tonight."

Cousins led Kentucky with 16 points and also had seven rebounds. But the 6-foot-11, 270-pound freshman's impact on the game in a couple of key junctures was almost as big as he is. "Our post play was good," said Kentucky Coach John Calipari.

In central New York, the Cats — the highest-ranking seed remaining in the Big Dance — found themselves playing an NCAA Tournament road game.

The federal budget deficit doesn't feature as much red as the Carrier Dome did Thursday night.

With their school making what may well be a once-in-a-lifetime Cinderella trip through March, the Cornell faithful (and who knew there were such a thing) made the short trip from Ithaca, N.Y., to Syracuse en masse.

Before the game was five minutes old, the Big Red had a Joey Foote hook shot, a Ryan Wittman trey and both a 12-footer and a three-pointer from Louis Dale.

Quicker than you could say "solve that Rubik's cube," Cornell led mighty Kentucky 10-2. The Dome was roaring louder than Mount St. Helens at full eruption.

"It was more Cornell fans than Kentucky fans," Cousins said. "When they made a run, we knew it was going to be loud."

No. 15 soon brought some silence to the proceedings.

Cousins, who had scored UK's first bucket on a layup, came back with two straight interior field goals to calm Kentucky nerves and get the Cats into the fight.

Those two field goals launched UK on a 19-4 run from which Cornell never fully recovered.

Which is not to say Kentucky didn't need some clutch work from Big Cuz to subdue the plucky Big Red.

In half two, Cornell's deliberate offensive pace seemed to lull Kentucky to sleep a bit offensively itself.

"Second half, we just kind of tried to get out of the gym," Calipari said. "You can't do that in the NCAA Tournament. You have to keep going and finish off the game."

With UK often taking offensive possessions uncharacteristically deep into the shot clock and then failing to convert (the Cats did not score their eighth point of the second half until the 8:02 mark), Cornell mounted a rally.

When Dale drained a trey with 5:39 left, what had been a 32-16 UK halftime lead was cut to 40-34. The impossible dream of an Ivy League team felling the winningest college basketball program of all time seemed alive.

But Cousins calmly dropped in a 6-footer to push the Cats back out by eight with 4:51 left. At the 3:53 mark, he added a put-back that made it 46-34 Kentucky.

He even withstood the seemingly every-game test of his poise when Cornell 7-footer Foote put a hard foul on the UK big man with 3:20 left.

Rather than overreacting, Big Cuz was the Big Cool and eventually cashed one of two free throws.

If there is a worrisome aspect of Cousins emerging as Kentucky's best scoring chance in pressure situations, it is his foul shooting.

After going 2-for-7 against Cornell, Cousins is 5-for-12 from the foul line in the NCAA tourney.

Still, if it hadn't been for Boogie from Bama, there's no certainty that Kentucky was going to end its tournament "road game" against Cornell showing it is UK that still knows how to spell the most important word in sports.

W-I-N.

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