CLEVELAND — Perfect and pulverizing. Kentucky made West Virginia’s press look pathetic.
Trey Lyles scored 14 points, Andrew Harrison added 13 and the unbeaten Wildcats, chasing history and a ninth national title, rolled to a 78-39 victory over the Mountaineers on Thursday night in the Midwest Regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
The tourney’s top seed and an overwhelming favorite to cut down the nets next month in Indianapolis, Kentucky (37-0) advanced to Saturday’s regional final to play third-seeded Notre Dame, an 81-70 winner over Wichita State in the other semifinal.
The Fighting Irish may need to call Rudy, consult with Digger Phelps and wake up the echoes from some of those stunning upsets in football and hoops they have pulled off in the past.
Kentucky is a monster this March.
With stunning ease, the Wildcats built a 26-point lead in the first half over the Mountaineers (25-10), who led the nation in steals and figured their full-court press would at least bother Kentucky into some turnovers. Not only did the press not work, West Virginia shot only 24.1 percent (13 of 54), including 2 of 15 from 3-point range, against the Wildcats, who resemble a forest of blue-tinted redwoods inside the paint.
West Virginia didn’t eclipse 20 points until the 11:41 mark of the second half.
It was over long before then. At halftime, the Mountaineers had nearly as many fouls (14) as points (18) and there was no hint they would be able to cut into Kentucky’s lead. The Wildcats, seeking to become the first team to go undefeated since Indiana in 1976, seemed to be sending a message to the rest of the tournament that everyone else is playing for second place.
Five years ago in the Elite Eight, West Virginia stunned a top-seeded Kentucky team that’s a lot like this one, loaded with high school All-Americas and future NBA players. But the Wildcats weren’t going to let that happen again, and they blistered the Mountaineers in the opening 20 minutes, leaving the court with superfan/actress Ashley Judd dancing along with the thousands who made the trip north to Cleveland.
Judd then tweeted she’s staying around for a few more days.
“I think it’s okay to extend my hotel room,” she wrote.
Aaron Harrison scored 12 points in the first half, Devin Booker dropped two 3-pointers and Marcus Lee and Willie Cauley-Stein took turns soaring to convert alley-oop passes into dunks that had West Virginia fans longing to take the country road back home.
Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins could only sit on his sideline stool and shrug. His good friend John Calipari has quite a team.
Dakari Johnson scored 12 points and Cauley-Stein added 10 rebounds for Kentucky, which hasn’t faced Notre Dame in the tournament since 1970.
Juwan Staten scored 14 points to lead West Virginia.
West Virginia’s players promised they wouldn’t be intimidated by Kentucky’s spotless record, the school’s blue-in-the-face fans or championship pedigree. In fact Mountaineers freshman guard Daxter Miles Jr. predicted he and his teammates would take down a squad SMU coach Larry Brown believes could make the NBA playoffs.
“They’re gonna be 36-1,” Miles Jr. said Wednesday, a comment the Wildcats shrugged off like so many other challenges they have encountered this season.
Miles didn’t score.
Kentucky’s fans came prepared for a tougher matchup after easy wins over Hampton and Cincinnati to start the tourney. At “The Corner Alley,” a restaurant bar where UK’s faithful gathered before tip-off, a T-shirt was being sold that said: “They Hate Us Because They Ain’t Us.”
No, there is no one quite like Kentucky.
For West Virginia to pull off the upset, the Mountaineers needed all hands on deck. But Devin Williams, the team’s leading rebounder, picked up two fouls in the first 1:14 and Huggins had no choice but to sit him. That left West Virginia vulnerable underneath but Kentucky did its early damage from outside as Harrison dropped two 3s and Booker scored on a layup to give Kentucky a 16-2 lead, forcing Huggins to call a timeout.
He should have asked for mercy.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers have made the Sweet 16 in six of their last nine NCAA Tournament appearances. … The Mountaineers came in 5-0 all-time in Cleveland, including 2-0 in NCAA games — both in 2005 at Cleveland’s Wolstein Center. … Huggins has 765 career wins, 12th most in history and third among active coaches, trailing only Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim.
Kentucky: Aaron Harrison left briefly after injuring a finger on his left hand in the second half. He returned with it taped. … The Wildcats aren’t just tall, but long. Kentucky’s 13 scholarship players have an average wing span of 6-foot-10 and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns stretches 7-foot-3 from tip to tip. … The Wildcats improved to 22-3 in NCAA Tournament games under Calipari, seeking his fourth Final Four appearance and second national title.
West Virginia: Season over.
Kentucky: Faces Notre Dame on Saturday in the Elite Eight.