SYRACUSE, N.Y. – John Wall saw red in nearly every corner he looked. Cornell’s loudest and largest pep rally was held at the Carrier Dome and turned the regional semifinal into an instant road game for Kentucky.
Big Blue crashed the party, and avoided the latest big upset by the Big Red.
Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson stopped Cornell’s captivating NCAA tournament run, giving the top-seeded Wildcats a 62-45 win Thursday in the East Regional semifinals.
“It got our attention,” Wall said. “We came out here and saw all that red.”
With much of the crowd – and the country – pulling for an upset by the 12th-seeded Ivy Leaguers, Cornell bolted to a 10-2 lead in the opening minutes.
But Kentucky overcame the early deficit with a swarming defense.
“I think we did a great job landing the first punch,” Cornell center Jeff Foote said. “They’re a very talented team. Their skill and talent is going to show eventually.”
John Calipari has the Wildcats (35-2) in the regional final in his first season, erasing much of the sting of the program’s decade-long slide from the top.
The climb back is nearly complete. Kentucky moved within one win of its first Final Four since winning the national championship in 1998 and will play second-seeded West Virginia on Saturday.
In an NCAA tournament gone wild with upsets, it’s 1 vs. 2 with a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis at stake.
Calipari said his young Wildcats must do better.
“I thought the second half, we kind of backed up and tried to just get out of the gym,” he said. “You can’t play that way in the NCAA tournament, but that’s OK. We learned a great lesson. We gave them a chance to maybe clip us.”
All the fan adulation and media hype shifted to Cornell this week after brainy Big Red (29-5) stunned the field with an improbable run to the round of 16. This was no Revenge of the Nerds – they proved they could play with the big boys.
The nation’s top 3-point shooting team continuously misfired from beyond the arc and Cornell couldn’t catch up.
After storming to two wins by a combined 59 points in the first two rounds, the Wildcats got all they could handle. Cornell pounced to that early lead, then sliced a 17-point deficit to nine late in the second half.
Louis Dale hit a 3 that made it 40-34 and Ryan Wittman nailed another to keep it at 46-37 with 3:47 left.
But Eric Bledsoe hit a short jumper with one tick left on the 35-second shot clock to push Kentucky’s lead to 12. The Wildcats finally put away Cornell for good from the free-throw line.
Cousins scored 16 points and Patterson had nine points and 12 rebounds for Kentucky.
Dale led Cornell with 17 points. The Big Red was just 5 for 21 on 3s after shooting 43 percent this season.
“Our shots weren’t falling,” Foote said. “Usually Ryan makes those shots. He had a tough day.”
This may as well have been a Cornell home game. Its campus in Ithaca, N.Y., is only about 55 miles away from the Carrier Dome and the Big Red faithful turned out in full force.
Kentucky was booed out of the building when it hit the court only moments after West Virginia beat Washington 69-56. The crowd roared and rattled the roof when Cornell sprinted out for warmups as chants of “Let’s go Red!” echoed throughout the dome. Some fans behind the basket boldly chanted “Overrated!” as the Wildcats warmed up.
For about 5 minutes, it looked like they might be right. Foote backed down Cousins for the first basket and Wittman and Dale hit 3s for a 10-2 lead that left the Wildcats red-faced.
Calipari refused to call a timeout, preferring to let the Wildcats play their way out of a jam. Smart move. The Wildcats went on a 12-0 run to take a lead they’d never surrender and hush the Cornell fans.
The fans chanted “Thank you, seniors!” in the waning minutes, a final salute for all Foote, Wittman and Dale have done.