ST. LOUIS — Back in November, “40-0” T-shirts were selling at a brisk clip in Kentucky, so convinced were its fans that its star-laden freshman class would accomplish something that has never been done in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball.
Now, the Wildcats will play Sunday to advance to the Midwest Regional semifinals — and to keep Wichita State from doing what their fans thought they would when the leaves were changing colors.
Forward Julius Randle’s 19-point, 15-rebound double-double on Friday night pushed No. 8 Kentucky past No. 9 Kansas State 56-49 in a brick-laying, body-checking battle of Wildcats.
Guard Aaron Harrison contributed 18 points for Kentucky (25-10), which meets 35-0 Wichita State in the third round at what should be a raucous Scottrade Center.
“No one expects us to win in the tournament,” said freshman guard Andrew Harrison, Aaron’s brother. “We’re going out there with a chip on our shoulder.”
The method in which this win was achieved might have been a step backward for Kentucky, which played well in the Southeastern Conference tournament, nearly upsetting No. 1 Florida in the championship game.
But Kentucky led for the game’s last 33 minutes and had every answer when Kansas State did pose a challenge, despite making just 38 percent of its shots from the field and committing 15 turnovers.
“The guys did everything we asked of them,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said, “but we just didn’t give them enough on offense to win this one. We just didn’t make enough shots.”
A lot of that had to do with Kentucky’s work on defense. It held Kansas State to 19-of-53 shooting from the field, including a miserable 5-of-21 on 3-pointers, and limited paint points as center Willie Cauley-Stein blocked four shots and altered a spate of others.
With Randle and Cauley-Stein patrolling the lane, Kentucky owned the boards 40-28, allowing just nine offensive boards to its undersized opponent as bodies hit the deck with regularity.
“They are long and athletic,” Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson said, “but at times, we weren’t smart about how we went inside. We could have powered into them, made them more foul-prone.”
Kansas State fell behind before the opening tip when reserve forward Brian Rohleder drew a technical foul for dunking in warm-ups. Players are not allowed to dunk once the clock reaches 20 minutes and Rohleder did so at 19:58.
Andrew Harrison made one of the two technical free throws, although it took Kentucky about eight minutes to grab the lead for good. Aaron Harrison capped an 8-0 run with a 3-pointer with 12:05 left for a 13-8 lead.
Kentucky led 29-23 at halftime and saw the margin dwindle to 35-33 on a 3-pointer by forward Shane Southwell with 15:05 left. But Kentucky scored seven straight points, with Randle hitting a leaner in the lane, to make it 42-33 at the 12-minute mark.
Kansas State never got the game closer than six points after that, even though it got 15 points from freshman guard Marcus Foster, plus 11 from Southwell and 10 from Gipson.
That sets the stage for one of the sport’s most storied programs to play its newest rock star, one dreaming the dream Kentucky dreamed when this season was an infant.
“No pressure on this team no more,” forward Alex Poythress said. “We know there are some people doubting us because that’s basketball, but we’re just going to go out and play ball.”
NOTES: Kansas State’s senior class of G Omari Lawrence, F Ryan Schultz, G Shane Southwell and G Will Spradling is just the third class in school history to reach four straight NCAA Tournaments. … Kentucky is making its 53rd NCAA Tournament appearance and boasts a 111-46 record in the event. … Kansas State entered Friday night’s game with a 5-10 record in road- and neutral-site games. … Kentucky averages 15.9 second-chance points per game, tops among all BCS-level teams.
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