Kentucky defense derails Cornell

John Wall and Kentucky are one win away from reaching the Final Four. Richard Mackson/US Presswire

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -– Watching John Wall get out on the break can be intoxicating.

Seeing DeMarcus Cousins control the paint at times can be intimidating.

When Kentucky has Eric Bledsoe finishing with a thunderous dunk or Patrick Patterson scoring inside or out, the Kentucky offense can be a machine.

What has been somewhat lost is just how dismantling the Wildcats’ defense has become this season.

But during a 62-45 win against Cornell on Thursday night at the Carrier Dome, you couldn’t help but be romanced by UK’s defense for a 15-minute stretch that was as stifling as any team has put on another at this level.

“They saw blood,’’ Cornell coach Steve Donahue said. “Give them credit. We lost our poise and we lost the game.’’

Cornell was doing everything it wanted for the first five minutes of the East Regional semifinal game. The Big Red had the crowd, a 10-2 lead and a national audience thinking the unthinkable.

And then something snapped.

It was as if a magician had just gone poof with some smoke and suddenly Cornell’s confidence, offensive execution and ability to win the game were gone in a flash.

Kentucky outscored Cornell 30-6 the rest of the half. The Wildcats would be up 38-30 with just over eight minutes left in the game before the offense finally unleashed for what was a never-very-easy win and a date with 2-seed West Virginia in Saturday’s Elite Eight.

“It was the best defense we’ve played all year,’’ said Patterson. “It was a total team effort. Coach Cal told us to shut down the 3-pointer shooters and make them take tough twos. We had to get our hands up every time they shot the ball.’’

Man, it was something to behold.

At the beginning of the season, Kentucky was a bit of a sieve on 3-point defense as teams like Sam Houston State and Miami (Ohio) had their way with 3s.

“We were awful,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “When you play prevent defense, you lose, it prevents you from winning. If you blitz, you win.’’

Donahue was pleased with how easily the Big Red were able to execute their offense in wins over Temple and Wisconsin in the first two rounds of this tournament. Against the Cats, Cornell couldn’t do much for that 15-minute stretch that signified the end of the game, even if the Big Red did cut the lead to six at one point late. The message was clear for that stretch that Kentucky could change the outcome by tightening its defense.

The difference for Donahue was seeing Cousins live.

Throughout the season, Cornell’s 7-foot center Jeff Foote could get the ball in the post and then see if he could score. Thursday that didn’t happen after the first few possessions.

“(Cousins) doesn’t look like he’s that flexible but he is,’’ Donahue said. “He’s way more impressive in person as an athlete. He doesn’t look like he can move quick but he can. He’s got good hands and a sense on how to play. He could probably play harder for longer. But he does everything else. He’s incredible.’’

Foote finished going just 3-of-8 for eight points and two turnovers. Cousins made 7 of 8 shots and did have four turnovers, but he also forced four with four steals.

“It was team defense,’’ Calipari said. “Our five-man helped. Our four-man helped. We made them take tough shots. It takes discipline and early our young guys didn’t have that. We’re 37 games in now.’’

Darius Miller said Kentucky hadn’t figured out how to defend early in the season. Teams were knocking down 3s and “breaking records on us. We’ve come a long way.’’

Calipari doesn’t get the credit of being a defensive-minded coach. But he has made the Wildcats defend. Why do you think Kentucky looks so fantastic on the break? It’s because the Wildcats are forcing turnovers.

“At the beginning of the season, none of us knew how to guard screens and guard the 3,’’ Wall said. “You can’t stop. You have to keep chasing and not let them get an open look.’’

Kentucky had a few lapses again later in the second half, but the Big Red’s 5-of-21 shooting on 3s was no fluke. Sure, Donahue said the Big Red did get some good looks that didn’t go down but they were mostly contested.

“They took the challenge of seeing how we executed last week and took us out of our stuff,’’ Donahue said. “I was disappointed in our guys that we didn’t give it another 10 seconds (during the possessions). We lost our poise and that hasn't happened for a long, long time.’’

Kentucky has been perceived at times as having plenty of flash and not enough substance. That’s simply wrong. The Wildcats defend as well as any team in the country when they apply themselves. Teams like Butler get credit for the low field-goal percentages and scores. But UK needs to get credit for how tough it defends. Cornell couldn’t figure it out.

And if Kentucky is locked in defensively for three more games, no one else will be able to either.