The Kentucky Wildcats are right where most everyone figured they’d wind up - at the Final Four.
They can thank the defense for that.
No. 1 seed Kentucky put on a marvelous display in the first half Saturday, suffocating Tim Duncan while denying almost everything on the perimeter, in an 83-63 victory over Wake Forest in the Midwest Regional final.
“I think (if) we play that type of defense, we probably would have beaten anybody,” coach Rick Pitino said after the Wildcats (32-2) got back to the Final Four for the second time in four years and the 11th time in school history.
Their opponent in Saturday’s semifinals will be top-ranked Massachusetts (35-1), one of only two teams to beat Kentucky this season. The Minutemen advanced to the Final Four with an 86-62 victory over Georgetown.
Kentucky led Wake Forest 38-19 at halftime, but Pitino said his players were subdued because the tempo was not what the Wildcats wanted.
“They had just played one of the more remarkable halves that I’ve been around in seven years at Kentucky,” he said. “Then it was capped by the first 5 minutes of the second half. They were truly remarkable on defense.”
It really was stunning. Duncan, the All-American center, had only three shots in the first half. Every time he touched the ball, he was sandwiched by two defenders who forced him to pass or into a turnover.
When that happened, No. 2 seed Wake Forest wasn’t able to get many open looks. The Demon Deacons (26-6) finished the half with just four field goals, on 4-of-18 shooting.
“They did a great job,” said Duncan, who finished with 14 points - 10 from the foul line - and 16 rebounds. “They were very aggressive trapping. They didn’t give me any looks whatsoever.”
Walter McCarty and Mark Pope took turns guarding Duncan from behind. When Duncan would get the ball, Antoine Walker or another Kentucky forward would help.
“Usually, when those kinds of measures are taken, there’s a price to pay,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. “We didn’t make them pay at the proper time.”
Wake Forest needed someone to produce from the perimeter. But by halftime, guard Rusty LaRue had four fouls and zero points on 0-for-3 shooting, and Ricky Peral had no shots. The only first-half 3-pointer came from Jerry Braswell.
The frustration boiled over for Odom, who was whistled for a technical foul late in the half. It was his first technical of the year.
In the first 7 minutes of the second half, Kentucky continued to roll. Tony Delk, who led the Wildcats with 25 points, had 3-pointers along with Derek Anderson and Jeff Sheppard as they took a 57-29 lead.
Then Wake Forest began to make a move. Taking advantage of turnovers and poor shooting by Kentucky, Duncan scored nine points - including his first field goal, with 12:01 remaining - and the Demon Deacons used five 3-pointers to outscore the Wildcats 26-9 to cut it to 66-55 with 4:18 to play. “A lesser team couldn’t do that,” Odom said.
But Kentucky, as it has throughout the tournament, had an answer.
Delk made a jumper to get the margin to 68-55. After Duncan made both ends of a one-and-one to again get Wake Forest within 11, Delk hit another jumper and then sank all three free throws after getting fouled on a 3-pointer.
That made the score 73-59 with 2:03 left.
“When they made their run, he got every call,” Pitino said of Delk. “I just have got so much confidence in him, I knew he’d come through for us.”
For the most part, the Demon Deacons got the kind of deliberate tempo that had helped them hold tournament opponents to an average of 57 points per game, but it didn’t matter. Kentucky shot 53 percent; Wake Forest’s opponents had all shot under 40 percent in the NCAAs.
The 20-point margin was nothing new for Kentucky. The Wildcats had won their previous three tournament games by an average of 31 points.
The 28.3-point tournament victory margin Kentucky takes into the Final Four is actually less than the 31-point margin the Wildcats had in advancing to the 1993 Final Four, when they lost to Michigan in the semifinals.
“They’re all over the place,” Duncan said. “That’s what will take them to the top.”
Kentucky 83, Wake Forest 63
Wake Forest (26-6) - Peral 3-5 5-5 13, Allen 3-6 1-1 7, Duncan 2-7 10-12 14, LaRue 1-4 0-0 3, Braswell 3-12 2-3 10, Goolsby 4-10 2-2 14, Amonett 0-2 0-0 0, Stringfellow 1-1 0-0 2, Wilson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-47 20-23 63.
Kentucky (32-2) - Anderson 4-7 3-4 12, Walker 3-11 3-3 9, McCarty 3-4 3-4 10, Delk 9-13 3-3 25, Epps 3-6 6-6 12, Sheppard 3-4 0-1 7, Turner 0-0 0-0 0, Pope 1-4 0-0 2, Mercer 0-1 0-0 0, Edwards 1-2 2-2 4, Simmons 0-0 0-0 0, Mohammed 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 28-53 20-23 83.
Halftime-Kentucky 38, Wake Forest 19. 3-point goals-Wake Forest 9-23 (Goolsby 4-7, Peral 2-3, Braswell 2-6, LaRue 1-4, Allen 0-1, Amonett 0-2), Kentucky 7-11 (Delk 4-6, Anderson 1-1, McCarty 1-1, Sheppard 1-1, Walker 0-1, Epps 0-1). Fouled out-Peral. Rebounds-Wake Forest 35 (Duncan 16), Kentucky 24 (Walker 6). Assists-Wake Forest 11 (Duncan 6), Kentucky 22 (Epps 6). Total fouls-Wake Forest 20, Kentucky 21. Technical-Wake Forest bench. A-30,397.