ATLANTA – Revenge was sweet for Kentucky.
The Wildcats erased the pain of a buzzer-beating, one-point loss to Indiana earlier this year with a 102-90 victory over the Hoosiers in the NCAA South Region semifinals this morning at the Georgia Dome. It ended more than three months of frustration for the Wildcats, who swore revenge wasn't a factor earlier this week despite the pregame hype surrounding the much-anticipated rematch.
Even Kentucky coach John Calipari denied the notion that avenging December's 73-72 was the motivating factor behind his team's performance in front of a Georgia Dome crowd that resembled a louder version of the team's Big Blue contingent at Rupp Arena.
By the final buzzer, they were loud and proud in a city known as “Catlanta” all throughout Big Blue Nation. Kentucky has fared well in the Peach State and the successful trend continued against the Hoosiers when it mattered the most even under adversity.
“It was a war,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said afterward. “Indiana played great and we just played a little bit better.”
The last time Kentucky visited Atlanta, the Wildcats left town with the Southeastern Conference Tournament trophy in hand, sparking a memorable postseason run that propelled Kentucky to last year's Final Four in Houston. Now, the Wildcats are one game away from making a return trip to the national semifinals and will play Baylor in the region finale Sunday.
Although the final margin was by double figures, getting there wasn't an easy task for the overall top-seeded Wildcats.
Kentucky center Anthony Davis sat and watched the final 14 minutes of the opening half after picking up two fouls in the first six minutes. For the first time in the Big Dance, Davis was forced to be a spectator instead of a contributor.
While on the bench, Davis got a sideline view of Christian Watford, the Hoosier Superhero who drained the game-winner in the Hoosiers' last-second heroics in Bloomington. Watford tallied 17 points and even got up a 3-pointer to end the half, but this time it wasn't similar to the one that resulted in Kentucky's one-point setback that was the team's only blemish prior to the postseason. Watford's production was limited in the second half and Kentucky limited him to just 10 points.
Despite the absence Davis and Watford's hot hand, Kentucky held its own and led 50-47 at the break, with Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist combining for 23 points. Jones scored just four points in the first meeting between the two border rivals, but had 12 points in a game that had more meaning and bigger stakes with a trip to the South Region final hanging in the balance.
“My teammates just told me to come out and play hard and score the ball,” Davis said.
Calipari said Davis returned to his usual self in the second half and wasn't surprised by his performance that made it even more difficult on the Hoosiers, especially in the paint.
“He played like he always does,” Calipari said. “I've never seen him play a bad game. He's a great player.”
Davis was on the floor consistently in the final half and finished with nine points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots, despite playing just 25 minutes. Even without Davis at full force, Kentucky created spacing between the two teams down the stretch and reached the century mark for the xxx time this season.
“That was a hard-fought battle,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “No one really got momentum.”
Kentucky got just enough to claim redemption.
UK Basketball: Cats feel right at home in Georgia Dome
Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist reacts after the second half of an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal college basketball game against Indiana Friday, March 23, 2012, in Atlanta. Kentucky won 102-90. AP photo