Indiana beat Kentucky 73-67 in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament Saturday, but there might as well have been a trip to the Final Four on the line. The intensity and quality of play during the game’s 40 minutes was something you don’t see often this early in the Big Dance. The two rivals went toe-to-toe and gave us one of, if not the, best game of this year’s tournament so far.
The Hoosiers outlasted the Wildcats in a back-and-forth slugfest that featured two rivals who hadn’t played in nearly four years. During the 2011-12 season, Indiana and Kentucky split two meetings and we had to wait until now for the rubber match. Tom Crean and John Calipari’s teams did not disappoint.
With 7:44 remaining in the game, two of college basketball’s most storied programs were tied at 50 in an NCAA Tournament game. Neither team ever led by more than 10, and most of the game was played within five points. The game was clean, with absolutely no pushing or shoving and featured two teams playing their guts out in an effort to extend their season. It was a basketball fan’s dream.
Down the stretch, Indiana just showed more toughness. A team written off by almost every expert after a disaster against Duke on December 2nd, has turned things around. First they won an outright Big Ten title, now they’re dancing into the Sweet 16.
On Saturday night, every time Kentucky made a play, the Hoosiers had an answer. Their defense tightened up and held the Wildcats to their second-lowest scoring output on the season. Indiana counter-punched Kentucky all night, and a quick burst in the second half gave them the edge they needed to pull this one out.
Tied at 50 and coming out of the under-eight minute timeout, Indiana went on an 8-0 run to take a lead they never surrendered.
Kentucky was led by diminutive sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, while senior Yogi Ferrell was the maestro for Indiana. Ulis put on a show, dropping 27 points on the Hoosiers in 39 minutes. Ferrell was just as good, scoring 18 points, while adding five rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes. The much-hyped matchup between two potential All-American point guards lived up to its billing, but the difference was the rest of each roster.
Freshman shooting guard Jamal Murray had 16 points for Kentucky, but it took him 18 shots to get there. He was just 1-of-9 from 3-point range, as Indiana ran several different defenders at him to make the future top-10 NBA pick uncomfortable. Murray added seven rebounds and four assists, but just couldn’t get his offense going consistently.
Meanwhile, freshman center Thomas Bryant dominated the second half for Indiana. After scoring just two points in the opening stanza, Bryant poured in 17 in the final frame, including some clutch late free throws. Indiana also got 18 points from its bench, while the far more talented Wildcats only mustered seven.
In the end, an Indiana team that has displayed an incredible level of toughness all season did that once again. Despite a distinct disadvantage in the talent department, somehow the Hoosiers found a way to win. Kentucky had better players, Indiana had the better team. It was that simple.
After watching that game it is really unfortunate one of those teams had to go home before the Sweet 16. The tournament selection committee set up a marquee matchup for the second round and got its wish with an outstanding basketball game.
Crean’s squad survived and advanced, while Calipari’s will head home to Lexington and reload. Hopefully the two men will come together this offseason and work out a way for this rivalry to be renewed annually.
As we saw on Saturday, college basketball is just better when Indiana and Kentucky play each other.