College Basketball Nation: 2011 NCAA Tampa

TAMPA, Fla. -- Florida officially lists guard Erving Walker at 5 feet, 8 inches.

Gators center Vernon Macklin admits his teammate is probably a couple of inches shorter.

“5-6,” Macklin said. “But I’ll give him 5-8 tonight.”

Walker, a junior from Brooklyn, N.Y., has never played like he’s shorter than almost every player on the court.

In the final minutes of No. 2 seed Florida’s 73-65 victory over No. 7 seed UCLA in the third round of the Southeast Regional at St. Pete Times Forum, Walker certainly played like he was bigger than everyone else.

Walker scored 21 points on 5-for-8 shooting, including nine of the Gators’ final 11 points. Walker’s 3-pointer put Florida ahead by a 69-65 score with 1:13 to play, and then he went 4-for-4 on foul shots in the final 32.8 seconds.

Florida advanced to next week’s Southeast Regional semifinals in New Orleans, where it will play the winner of Saturday night’s game between No. 3 seed BYU and No. 11 seed Gonzaga.

“He’s a great competitor,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I think when you’re that small and you’re always having to fight for respect, I think he knows he’s going to have to earn it.”

Walker has definitely earned the respect of his teammates. When the Gators’ postseason lives were on the line against the Bruins, they knew which player they wanted taking shots at the end.

“Erv is fearless,” Florida forward Chandler Parsons said. “Every time that guy takes a shot, I know it’s going in. He’s got a knack for making big shots. He’s a gutsy player that wants to take big shots like that.”

Walker put Florida ahead 63-58 with a circus bank shot with about four minutes to play. Walker made the shot after bouncing off the chest of UCLA center Josh Smith, a 6-foot-10, 338-pound freshman.

“It was a big play and Josh was right there,” Bruins coach Ben Howland said. “He just kind of bounced off him and hung in the air.”

With Florida holding a 64-60 lead with 3:07 left, Walker and freshman guard Scottie Wilbekin trapped UCLA’s Lazeric Jones at midcourt and forced him to dribble the ball off his foot. Macklin scored a layup on Florida’s next possession for a 66-60 lead.

“He’s so quick,” Howland said. “He’s very athletic. He’s very skilled. He’s a fearless little guy. He’s just a very good player.”

The Bruins got as close as 66-65 on Smith’s layup with 1:33 to play. After the ball was knocked out of bounds, Wilbekin had trouble getting the ball back in. He lofted a pass to Walker near midcourt, and UCLA’s Malcolm Lee tried to steal it. Lee slipped, which was just enough of an opening for Walker to take the biggest shot of his career.

“I checked to make sure I had time to get the shot off,” Walker said. “It was a good look, and I thought it was a good shot for me to take.”

Walker drained the 3-pointer, putting the Gators back into the Sweet 16 for the first time since winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.

“Erv is a really aggressive player,” Macklin said. “He really came through for us at the end. He has crazy range.”

Walker’s teammates weren’t surprised he was the player leading them there.

“Erv wants the ball in his hands and he wants to take big shots,” Macklin said. “How many guys his size want to do that? He’s so relentless and has a huge heart.”

Rapid Reaction: Florida 73, UCLA 65

March, 19, 2011
TAMPA, Fla. -- No. 2-seeded Florida held off a feisty UCLA, 73-65, Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum and will advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since winning consecutive national championships in 2006 and '07.

In a see-saw battle most of the game, Florida finally pulled away late in the second half, outscoring UCLA 18-10 in the final 6:24. Erving Walker sealed the game with a 3-pointer and four of four free throws in the final 1:12.

Turning point: With 6:43 remaining and the score tied at 55-55, UCLA called a timeout to get center Joshua Smith back in the game and ran an alley-oop play for him. Chandler Parsons blocked the shot, then Florida's Kenny Boynton hit a 3-pointer. Smith then took an ill-advised shot, missed, and Florida's Erik Murphy hit another three-pointer with 5:49 to play, giving the Gators a 61-55 lead -- the largest lead either team had until the final minute.

Player of the game: Walker, Florida. He led the Gators with 21 points and scored 10 in the final 3:52. His 3-pointer with 1:12 to play gave Florida a 69-65 lead, and he then made two free throws to give the Gators a 71-65 lead with 32 seconds to go. He made five of eight shots, including three of five 3-pointers.

Key stat: UCLA made only three of 13 3-point attempts, and the Bruins were one for seven until they started hoisting desperation heaves in the final minutes. Without an outside presence, Florida was able to use its zone defense to limit UCLA's inside game, which produced 32 points.

Miscellaneous: UCLA held a 20-10 rebounding edge in the first half, but Florida crashed the boards hard in the second. The Gators out-rebounded UCLA 22-15 in the second half. Parsons, Florida's leading rebounder, had zero rebounds in the first half, but had five in the second. Florida, which had no offensive rebounds in the first half, had eight in the second.

What’s next: Florida (28-7) moves on to New Orleans to face the winner of Saturday night’s game between No. 3-seeded Brigham Young and No. 11 Gonzaga. BYU defeated Florida, 99-92, in a first-round NCAA tournament game last season.

TAMPA, Fla. -- In the first half of Saturday’s East Region third-round game between No. 4 seed Kentucky and No. 5 seed West Virginia, Mountaineers guard Joe Mazzulla was lighting up the Wildcats, just like he did in the Elite Eight a year ago.

Mazzulla, who scored a career-high 17 points in the Mountaineers’ 73-66 upset of UK last year, had 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the first half of Saturday’s game.

At that rate, Mazzulla was going to be the most despised opposing player in the Commonwealth since Duke’s Christian Laettner.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Liggins and Joe Mazzulla
Kim Klement/US PresswireDeAndre Liggins, left, helped limit West Virginia's Joe Mazzulla to just five second-half points.
“He was getting too many easy, uncontested layups,” Kentucky guard Darius Miller said.

With the Wildcats trailing 41-33 at the half, UK coach John Calipari made an adjustment.

UK junior DeAndre Liggins, a 6-foot-6 defensive stopper, was going to guard Mazzulla in the second half.

“In the first half, we let him do what he wanted,” Liggins said. “He had some uncontested layups. I just wanted to make it tough for him in the second half, which I did.”

With Liggins hounding him, Mazzulla scored only five points after the half, and the Wildcats ran away with a 71-63 victory to advance to next week’s region semifinals in Newark, N.J.

“[Liggins] absolutely [loves to play defense] and that’s what makes him special,” Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua said. “He’s one of the better defenders in the country. We just told him to stay in front of [Mazzulla] and make it tough on him.”

More than anything else, Antigua said Liggins had to stay in front of Mazzulla.

“You’ve got to move your feet,” Antigua said. “[Mazzulla] is very crafty and a very smart player. He doesn’t beat you with speed; he beats you with his craftiness and angles.”

Mazzulla found it especially difficult in the final few minutes of the game. After UK went ahead 60-56 with less than four minutes to play, Mazzulla missed a layup and was called for a foul. On the Mountaineers’ next possession, UK senior Josh Harrellson and Miller blocked Mazzulla’s shot.

“They played Liggins on Joe, just put a little more size on him,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We just got all balled up again. When we stayed spread, we had a better chance. We didn’t get wide enough. And when you start creeping in, your defense creeps in. They had good help on defense, but we didn’t spread them the way we spread them in the first half.

“We’re just too small not to spread people. We just get swallowed up with size if we don’t spread people.”

Mazzulla had a hard time spreading the floor because Liggins was always in his way.

“I think DeAndre is the best defender in the country,” Harrellson said. “He can guard anybody from one [point guard] through four [power forward] and can guard a couple of big men. He’s always there when you need help and he’s always there to take a charge.”

Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight, who scored a career-high 30 points against the Mountaineers, said Liggins’ intensity inspired his teammates.

Liggins finished with three points on 1-for-2 shooting, but also had nine rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots.

“It was big-time,” Knight said. “It was just as important as Josh’s play and rebounding. His length, his intensity and tenacity spreads to the rest of us.”

TAMPA, Fla. -- Kentucky got its revenge and is headed back to the Sweet 16.

A year after West Virginia knocked the Wildcats out of the Elite Eight, No. 4 seed Kentucky returned the favor on Saturday, defeating the No. 5 seed Mountaineers 71-63 in an East Regional third-round game at St. Pete Times Forum.

Kentucky missed its first 20 3-point attempts against West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone defense in a 73-66 loss last season. But freshman Brandon Knight knocked down a couple of early 3-pointers on Saturday, and then the Wildcats rallied from an eight-point deficit at the half before pulling away late.

Turning point: Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones tied the score at 55 on a dunk with about 6 minutes to play. After a defensive stop, UK senior Josh Harrellson grabbed two offensive rebounds and scored a layup to make it 57-55. Then junior Darius Miller made his first shot of the game, a 3-pointer from the left wing to make it 60-55 with 4:10 remaining.

Player of the game: Knight, who had been mired in a shooting slump, scored a career-high 30 points on 9-for-20 shooting. Knight, from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., went 3-for-8 on 3-pointers and also had three rebounds and four assists. Knight scored 16 of UK’s 33 points in the first half.

Key stat: 2-8: Kentucky coach John Calipari’s record against West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.

Miscellaneous: Harrellson, a seldom-used forward before this season, scored 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. He had to leave the game for a couple of minutes late, after being cut over his left eye. … UK's Jones had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. … Joe Mazzulla, who had 17 points in last season’s win against the Wildcats, scored 20 on Saturday. He scored only five points in the second half, after UK junior DeAndre Liggins began guarding him.

What’s next: The Wildcats advance to next week’s East Region semifinals in Newark, N.J., where they will play the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Ohio State and No. 8 seed George Mason. West Virginia finishes the season with a 21-12 record.

Preview: Saturday in Tampa

March, 19, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. -- A look at today's games in Tampa:

No. 5 seed West Virginia (21-11) vs. No. 4 seed Kentucky (26-8), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

Kentucky player to watch: Junior Darius Miller doesn’t get as much attention as freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, but he might have been UK’s most important player down the stretch. In the past 10 games, Miller is averaging 15.6 points. He had 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the Wildcats’ 59-57 victory over No. 13 seed Princeton in the second round on Thursday, after a solid performance in three games in the SEC tournament. At 6-foot-7, Miller is a tough defensive matchup for opponents. He can shoot from the perimeter, score off the dribble and post up in the paint. WVU coach Bob Huggins might assign John Flowers, his best defender, to guard Miller because he’s a three-way threat.

West Virginia player to watch: Senior guard Casey Mitchell is West Virginia’s leading scorer with 13.7 points per game, but he’s been noticeably quiet over the past few weeks. Mitchell scored only nine points on 2-for-8 shooting in a 67-61 loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament, and then had only four points on 2-for-6 shooting in an 84-76 win over Clemson in an NCAA second-round game on Thursday. Mitchell makes 37.8 percent of his 3-pointers, but he isn’t playing with much confidence right now.

Stat that matters: 1-8: Kentucky coach John Calipari’s record versus West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.

Three things to watch:

1. West Virginia’s defense: The Mountaineers upset the Wildcats 73-66 in the Elite Eight last season, earning their first trip to the Final Four since 1959. West Virginia struggled to guard UK with a man-to-man defense early in the game, so Huggins switched to a 1-3-1 zone. UK never solved the zone, missing its first 20 3-point attempts before finishing 4-for-32 from behind the 3-point line. Of course, West Virginia had longer wing players like Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks to defend the perimeter a year ago.

“[Last year], a lot of their shots were contested, under duress from the 1-3-1,” Mountaineers guard Joe Mazzulla said. “We got them off of the 3-point line and probably a few steps back. That’s just what we’ve got to do tomorrow. We can’t let them get standstill shots and we can’t let them set their feet. If we can make them rush their 3-pointers, and if we can get a hand in their face, then hopefully it’ll be the same result.”

2. Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight: The UK point guard was one of the country’s best freshmen, leading the team with 17.5 points and 4.2 assists per game. But Knight has struggled from the floor over the past couple of weeks, shooting only 32.4 percent in his past six games. Knight hit the winning shot with two seconds left in the victory over Princeton, but missed his first seven shots in the game and never looked comfortable.

“At the beginning of the game [Thursday], guys around me were knocking down shots,” Knight said. “A lot of guys were finishing. Darius was on a roll. So at that point in the game, I didn’t really have to shoot the ball a lot. We were doing just fine.”

3. Kentucky’s bench: The Wildcats really use only six players, with five players averaging 30 minutes or more and senior Josh Harrellson playing about 28 minutes per game. Reserves Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood rarely leave the bench. West Virginia’s bench is about four players deep, as nine Mountaineers average 8.5 minutes or more. WVU’s reserves -- guards Mitchell, Jonnie West and Dalton Pepper and forward Deniz Kilicli -- combined for 28 points in the victory over Clemson.

No. 7 seed UCLA (23-10) vs. No. 2 seed Florida (27-7), approx. 2:45 ET (CBS)

Florida player to watch: Senior forward Chandler Parsons was named SEC Player of the Year without even leading the Gators in scoring. He was third on the team with 11.5 points per game, but led UF with 7.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. During the Gators’ 79-51 rout of No. 15 seed UC Santa Barbara in the second round, Parsons finished three rebounds short of recording a triple-double. In 27 minutes, he had 10 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.

UCLA player to watch: It’s impossible to miss freshman center Josh Smith, who is 6-10 and 323 pounds. The Washington native lost 40 pounds during the offseason and is averaging about 21 minutes per game. After playing off the bench during the past 10 weeks, Smith started against Michigan State on Thursday and had 14 points, three rebounds and two steals in the Bruins’ 78-76 victory.

“I think when you see somebody that big physically and that strong, the feeling is maybe they don’t move quite as well or they can’t jump as well,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “But he really does a terrific job moving his feet for a guy that size. I also think the other thing that makes him a special player is he’s got great hands. I think when balls are up on the glass, he’s going to grab it.”

Florida’s big men -- Vernon Macklin, Erik Murphy, Alex Tyus and Patric Young -- will have their hands full trying to handle Smith.

Stat that matters: 0 -- Points scored in NCAA tournament games by UCLA’s players before Thursday night’s victory over Michigan State.

Three things to watch:

1. Malcolm Lee’s defense: The UCLA junior is one of the country’s best defenders and will gladly accept the challenge of slowing down Florida guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. In the Bruins’ narrow victory over Michigan State, Lee harassed Spartans senior Kalin Lucas throughout the game. Lucas missed his first 10 shots and had four turnovers. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting in his final college game. Lee is playing with a slight cartilage tear in his knee and even needed staples to close a wound on his scalp on Thursday night.

“I’ve said before I think Malcolm is the best defender at his position in the country,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

2. UCLA’s foul shots: The Bruins shot foul shots well at the end of the regular season, but their work at the foul line nearly cost them a victory over the Spartans on Thursday night. The Bruins made only 30 of 47 free ones against MSU, missing 13-of-28 in the second half. In the final 5 minutes, 19 seconds, UCLA went 12-for-22 from the foul line, which helped allow the Spartans to nearly come back from a 23-point deficit. The Bruins are shooting 68.1 percent from the charity stripe as a team, and forward Reeves Nelson and Smith are both shooting about 61 percent.

3. Florida’s experience: The Gators start three seniors, although they hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game until routing the Gauchos on Thursday night. The Bruins, who have been forced to rebuild after losing a boatload of players who helped them reach three straight Final Fours from 2006 to ’08, don’t have a senior on their roster. The Bruins sometimes make mistakes typical of young teams, like turning the ball over and missing foul shots. Can Florida’s veterans take advantage of UCLA’s youth?

TAMPA, Fla. -- Almost mercifully, Michigan State’s season-to-forget came to an end Thursday night.

The 10th-seeded Spartans, who were ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls but needed a late-season push just to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, fell to No. 7 seed UCLA 78-76 in a second-round game of the Southeast Regional at St. Pete Times Forum.

Even after finishing the season with a disappointing 19-15 record, the Spartans did the only thing coach Tom Izzo could ask them to do -- they fought to the very end.

After trailing by 23 points with about 8 minutes to go, Michigan State cut UCLA’s lead to 78-76 and had the basketball with 4.4 seconds to go. But senior guard Kalin Lucas was called for traveling while trying to dribble through a triple-team down the sideline, and the Spartans’ improbable comeback was over.

[+] EnlargeKalin Lucas
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesUCLA's defense held Kalin Lucas to only 11 points and five assists.
“I’m crushed and disappointed because we just got off to such a poor start, and yet I’m so proud of these guys,” Izzo said. “They’ve been knocked down so many times this year. I don’t think I’ve ever had a team that’s gone through as much, and yet to battle back and almost put themselves at a chance to win was incredible. I’m incredibly grateful to them.”

In the end, though, the Spartans were never able to live up their lofty preseason hype against one of the country’s most difficult schedules.

MSU lost eight of its first 20 games and was plagued by off-court distractions. Guard Chris Allen was dismissed from the team in May and transferred to Iowa State. On Jan. 26, Izzo kicked guard Korie Lucious off the team for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Izzo even ran into his own troubles with the NCAA and was suspended for one game for committing a secondary rules violation.

“It’s been a year that I’ll never forget for a lot of reasons,” Izzo said. “It’s kind of a fitting way to end, because I’ve been telling these guys all year, we’ve just got to keep battling back. Where some people have just fallen off the face of the earth with one of these seasons, we didn’t. I kept telling them we’ve got to be like a boxer and just keep getting up.”

Even a heavyweight like Michigan State endures seasons like this one. The Spartans’ 15 losses are their most in a season since a 16-16 finish in 1995-96, Izzo’s first campaign. The losses also equaled Michigan State's total from their previous two seasons combined.

Izzo said he hurt most for seniors such as Lucas, Durrell Summers and Mike Kebler. After MSU played in the Final Four in each of the previous two seasons, it went one-and-done in their final college season.

Lucas fought back tears while addressing reporters in MSU’s postgame news conference.

“I think I had a great four years here,” Lucas said. “I had a great coach that pushed me every day at practice, and I had great teammates that pushed me every day at practice as well. The loss hurts, but at the same time these four years have been great.”

Lucas, the team’s leading scorer, battled back after rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in the NCAA tournament last season.

UCLA focused much of its defensive attention on Lucas, and he missed his first eight shots. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting and had five assists and four turnovers.

“I know it had to be rough for him,” MSU forward Draymond Green said. “I feel like he had a great career, and he hasn’t had many games where he just couldn’t get anything to fall. They did a great job defensively on him. They pretty much keyed on him the whole entire defense, and he did a great job of still getting everybody else involved.”

Lucas finished four points shy of reaching 2,000 points in his career.

“It hurts me,” Green said. “I’m a big fan of my guys reaching milestones, and the loss hurts me, but I think I’m kind of hurting because he came up four points short of 2,000. For everything he did for this program, I get to come back for another year so I can be sad about the loss later. I think I’m hurting more about him not getting them four points.”

Izzo said he won’t remember these seniors by their final campaign. They were part of teams that reached the Sweet 16 in 2008, the national championship game in 2009 and the national semifinals last season.

“I’m proud of all those seniors,” Izzo said. “I hope people look at what they’ve accomplished in their four-year career because it is unbelievable how many games they won and crowds they played in front of and what they’ve done.”

Video: UCLA's Tyler Honeycutt

March, 18, 2011
AM ET’s Mark Schlabach talks with UCLA’s Tyler Honeycutt after the Bruins' victory over Michigan State.
TAMPA, Fla. -- In the type of thriller that is responsible for the term March Madness, UCLA nearly blew a 23-point second-half lead, but held off a fury of Michigan State 3-pointers and won, 78-76, in a second round NCAA tournament game at the St. Pete Times forum.

No. 7-seeded UCLA (23-10) had an 18-point halftime lead and stretched it to 64-41 with 8:35 to play, but Michigan State got hot from the outside and made six 3-point baskets in the final 6:13. Meanwhile, UCLA had troubles from the free-throw line, making only 3 of 12 foul shots in the final 1:31 as the No. 10-seeded Spartans closed a 75-66 deficit to 77-76 with 4.4 seconds to play.

UCLA guard Malcolm Lee made one of two free throws then forced a turnover on the ensuing possession and UCLA advanced.

Turning point: It might not have seemed all that relevant given how close the game ended up, but Joshua Smith's hook shot with 8:56 remaining gave UCLA an 11-point lead. The Bruins have not lost a game this season when taking a double-digit lead at any point. They are now 21-0 in such games.

Player of the game: Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA. He played one of his most complete games of the season with 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. Perhaps Honeycutt was motivated by some pregame comments made by Michigan State's Durrell Summers. His huge rebound on a missed Spartans 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining and UCLA up 77-73 all but clinched the game. Michigan State's Draymond Green also deserves mention for a triple-double of 23 points, 11 rebounds and 1o assists in the losing effort.

Key stat: Kalin Lucas, Michigan State's leading scorer for the season had only 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting. Lucas was averaging 17.2 points this season and 20 points over the past 14 games, but was held scoreless until there was 7:44 left in the game. He was the Big Ten player of the year in 2009 and a key contributor to the Spartans' Final Four runs in each of the past two seasons, but was a non-factor for much of Thursday thanks to the tenacious defense played on him by Lee, a Pac-10 all-defensive team selection.

Miscellaneous: The battle of the boards was always going to be a deciding factor in this game and UCLA's 39-36 edge on the glass certainly was. Michigan State had outrebounded opponents by an average of 35-30 over the season and UCLA held a 37-32 average rebounding edge this season.

What’s next: UCLA will face No. 2-seeded Florida on Saturday in a rematch of the 2006 national championship and '07 national semifinal games. Florida, a 79-52 winner over UC Santa Barbara, won both those games and won consecutive NCAA championships. This time a spot in the Sweet 16 is on the line. Game time is approximately 11:45 a.m. Pacific.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Florida’s NCAA tournament drought is over.

The Gators, who hadn’t won an NCAA tournament game since winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, blasted No. 15 seed UC Santa Barbara 79-51 in a Southeast Regional second-round game at St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday night.

Florida, the SEC regular-season champion, had their way with the overmatched Gauchos from the start. The Gators shot 54.7 percent from the floor and out-rebounded UC Santa Barbara, 34-22.

No. 2 seed Florida advanced to play No. 5 seed West Virginia in Saturday’s third round.

Turning point: When the teams loaded up the buses and drove to St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday. The Gauchos were overwhelmed from the start, as Florida led by as many as 25 points in the first half. Florida shot 58.1 percent in the first half, including 5-for-14 on 3-pointers, and had a 43-19 lead at the half.

Player of the game: Florida senior Chandler Parsons nearly became the ninth player to record a triple-double in an NCAA tournament game, finishing with 10 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Parsons, who was named the SEC player of the year, might have accomplished the rare feat if he hadn’t spent the last several minutes of the game on the bench. Parsons would have joined rare company, including the likes of Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwayne Wade.

Key stat: 22 assists. The Gators had 22 assists on 29 baskets with 13 turnovers.

Miscellaneous: Four of Florida’s starters reached double figures in scoring. Along with Parsons, guards Erving Walker (18 points, six assists) and Kenny Boynton (13 points, four steals) and center Vernon Macklin (10 points) scored 10 points or more. Starting forward Alex Tyus had eight points. Guard Orlando Johnson led the Gauchos with 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting.

What’s next: Florida’s advances to Saturday’s third round, where it will face the winner of Thursday night’s game between No. 7 seed UCLA and No. 10 seed Michigan State. UC Santa Barbara closes the season with an 18-14 record.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones doesn’t even want to think about how his school’s home state would have reacted if Louisville and UK’s basketball teams had both lost today.

“I couldn’t even imagine,” Jones said. “I don’t want to imagine.”

The Cardinals, the No. 4 seed in the Southwest Regional, were upset by No. 13 seed Morehead State 62-61 on Thursday.

Less than an hour later, No. 4 seed Kentucky and No. 13 seed Princeton were tied at 57 with less than one minute to play in a second-round game of the East Regional.

If not for Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight's winning bank shot with two seconds to play in a 59-57 victory, the Wildcats would have been headed back to the Commonwealth, just like their bitter rivals.

“I’m happy we won the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters afterward. “There’s my opening statement.”

The Tigers, the Ivy League champions, tied the score at 57 on guard Dan Mavraides’ step-back jumper with 37.5 seconds to go.

After a Kentucky timeout, Knight took the basketball and dribbled at the top. With about nine seconds to play, junior Darius Miller set a screen for Knight on a pick-and-roll play. Knight drove down the right side of the lane and was guarded by Tigers forward Kareem Maddox, the Ivy League defensive player of the year, who switched to Knight after the screen.

“It was a bigger guy, so I thought I had a good chance to get by him,” Knight said.

Knight dribbling by Maddox was one thing. Knight making the shot was an entirely different matter.

Knight, a freshman from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., hadn’t made a shot the entire game. After struggling with his shot in last week’s SEC tournament in Atlanta, Knight missed his first seven attempts against Princeton.

But Calipari said he knew he didn’t want anyone else taking the shot at the end.

“I have all the faith and confidence in the world in him,” Calipari said. “I’ll be honest, I thought he had made one shot. I didn’t think he was like oh-for. That being said, he’s a winner. He’s not afraid to make a play. Guys like him aren’t afraid to miss.”

Knight banked the ball high off the glass and didn’t miss. Kentucky advanced to Saturday’s third round against No. 5 West Virginia, which knocked Kentucky out of the Elite Eight last season.

“I’m with him every day,” Calipari said. “There’s no one that works harder, spends more time or believes in himself more, based on his work ethic. He’s the first one in the gym and the last one to leave, and he goes [back] at night. I have no problem putting the ball in his hand because he’s made that shot in the gym by himself many times, counting it off.”

Knight, who came into the game leading the Cats with 17.5 points and 4.2 assists per game, said he wasn’t worried about missing the shot.

“Once I got by him, I just wanted to make sure to get it high off the glass so it would go in or we could get the rebound,” Knight said. “I want to take those shots. You’re going to make some and you’re going to miss some.”

With Knight and Jones struggling from the floor again, Kentucky’s veterans carried the load against the Tigers. Senior forward Josh Harrellson had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and junior guard Darius Miller had 17 points and four rebounds.

“I thought DeAndre Liggins in the second half and Darius Miller in the first half, and Josh throughout, kept us where we had a chance to win,” Calipari said. “How we escaped, I still have to go watch the tape and figure it out.”

TAMPA, Fla. -- Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight missed the first seven shots he took against Princeton in Thursday’s East Regional second-round game at St. Pete Times Forum.

But Knight made the shot that mattered the most for Kentucky, scoring a scooping bank shot with two seconds left to play in the No. 4-seeded Wildcats’ 59-57 victory over No. 13 seed Princeton.

Knight, a point guard from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., finished with two points on 1-for-8 shooting.

Turning point: Princeton, the Ivy League co-champion, had a 44-39 lead with about 12 minutes to play. But the Wildcats scored on their next three possessions. Freshman Doron Lamb's bank shot gave the Cats a 45-44 lead with 9:49 to go.

Player of the game: For all the attention Kentucky’s fabulous freshmen are getting, senior forward Josh Harrellson continues to come up big in the postseason. Harrellson scored 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds for a double-double. He also had four steals and one blocked shot.

Key stat: 3-for-14. The Tigers shot 3-for-14 on 3-pointers, including 1-for-7 in the second half.

Miscellaneous: Kentucky junior Darius Miller scored 17 points, but only two in the second half. He had 15 points in the first half on 5-for-8 shooting. Freshman forward Terrence Jones added 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting. Guard Dan Mavraides led the Tigers with 14 points.

What’s next: Kentucky advances to Saturday’s third round and will play No. 5 seed West Virginia in the East Regional. The Mountaineers upset UK 73-66 in the Elite Eight last season. Princeton finished the season with a 25-7 record.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Dalton Pepper wasn’t much of a defensive player during his first season at West Virginia in 2010.

A former Pennsylvania state high school player of the year, Pepper was really nothing more than a spot-up shooter during his first college season.

“Last year, I was probably the worst defender on the team,” Pepper said.

Tell that to the Clemson Tigers.

After Clemson cut West Virginia’s lead to 76-71 in the final two minutes of Thursday’s East Regional second-round game at St. Pete Times Forum, Pepper swiped the basketball from the Tigers on three consecutive possessions to seal an 84-76 victory.

Pepper, a sophomore reserve from Leavittown, Pa., converted his first two steals into a dunk and layup to make it 80-71. Mountaineers guard Truck Bryant was fouled after Pepper’s third steal, and Bryant made one of two foul shots for an 81-71 lead with 56 seconds to play.

“If we make a long run in the NCAA tournament, people are going to look back at Dalton as a hero,” West Virginia forward Cam Thoroughman said.

Pepper might be the most unlikely of heroes for the Mountaineers. He came into the game averaging 3.8 points and 1.5 rebounds and averaged 10.8 minutes in Big East games.

West Virginia forward Deniz Kilicli, from Istanbul, Turkey, has lived with Pepper for the last two years.

“The first two weeks, he didn’t say anything,” Kilicli said. “He’s definitely a quiet kid.”

But with the Mountaineers’ postseason lives on the line in the final minutes on Thursday, Pepper was standing at the top of West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone, trying to disrupt the Tigers more than anything else.

“Mostly, we want to slow them down,” Pepper said. “I don’t think they were ready for it, and we just caught them off guard and got a few steals.”

Pepper swiped the basketball from Clemson guard Tanner Smith, and then took it from Demontez Stitt two more times.

“He’s perfect for the top of that 1-3-1 because of his length and athleticism,” West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla said. “Once we got him to understand what that position is and how you’re supposed to play it, he almost played it to perfection today.”

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins didn't move Pepper to the top of the 1-3-1 until about three weeks ago.

“He was always playing on the wing before,” Huggins said. “We’re just trying to get him to stay between the ball and the next guy. I honestly didn’t even see what happened the first time. I was looking at what they were doing on the baseline, I wasn’t watching the ball. Those were big for us.”

It was a crushing blow for Clemson, which led by as many as 10 points in the first half, after defeating UAB 70-52 in a first-round game in Dayton, Ohio less than 48 hours earlier.

“We came out and were playing well at the beginning,” Clemson guard Andre Young said. “We hit them in the mouth and they came at us at the end of the first half. I think we had a lot of mental breakdowns here and there, and they ultimately cost us.”

The Tigers’ three big miscues in the final two minutes are what really hurt them.

“We could practice that defense 10 to 15 times in practice, and [Pepper] might get one steal,” Thoroughman said. “I’ve never seen him do that.”

Video: WVU's Cam Thoroughman

March, 17, 2011

WVU's Cam Thoroughman talks about the win over Clemson.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tired legs?

No. 12 seed Clemson came storming out of the locker room in its East Regional second-round game against No. 5 seed West Virginia, grabbing an early 10-point lead over the Mountaineers at St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday. The Tigers were playing for the second time in less than 48 hours, after defeating UAB 70-52 in a first-round game on Tuesday night.

But West Virginia stormed back to tie the game at 40 at the half, and then turned up its defensive intensity in the second half to pull away with an 84-76 victory.

Turning point: After West Virginia took a 76-71 lead on Joe Mazzulla's two foul shots with 1:43 to go, Mountaineers guard Dalton Pepper stole the basketball from the Tigers and scored layups on two straight possessions. The Mountaineers turned a four-point lead into an 80-71 advantage in only 23 seconds.

Player of the game: West Virginia forward Kevin Jones gave his team some much-needed momentum by knocking down a 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the score at 40 heading into halftime. Jones, a junior from Mount Vernon, N.Y., scored 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds.

Key stat: 80.6 percent: The Mountaineers made 25 of 31 foul shots and went 10-for-10 in the first half. West Virginia shot 70.6 percent from the foul line this season.

Miscellaneous: West Virginia guard Truck Bryant scored 19 points with three rebounds, and Mazzulla had 12 points with seven assists. Clemson guards Demontez Stitt and Andre Young combined for 38 points.

What’s next: West Virginia advances to play the winner of Thursday’s second-round game between No. 4 seed Kentucky and No. 13 seed Princeton on Saturday. The Mountaineers upset the Wildcats 73-66 in the Elite Eight last season. Clemson finished the season with a 22-12 record, a pretty good rookie campaign by coach Brad Brownell.
TAMPA, Fla. -- A look at the evening action set for the St. Pete Times Forum.

No. 15 seed UC Santa Barbara (18-13) vs. No. 2 seed Florida (26-7), 6:50 p.m. ET (TBS)


Coach: Bob Williams (406-269 in 23 seasons, 217-169 in 13 seasons at UCSB)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 1-4 in four appearances

Player to watch: Gauchos guard Orlando Johnson is one of the country’s hottest players entering the NCAA tournament. In three games of the Big West tournament last week, Johnson averaged 28.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists. He made 12 of 18 3-pointers in victories over Pacific, Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. Johnson is averaging 21.1 points and 6.3 rebounds this season.


Coach: Billy Donovan (392-166 in 17 seasons, 357-146 in 15 seasons at Florida)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 29-13 in 16 appearances

Player to watch: Senior forward Chandler Parsons ranks third on the team in scoring with 11.5 points per game. But Parsons was named SEC player of the year because he does so much else. He leads the Gators in rebounding (7.8) and assists (112) and is shooting 49.6 percent from the floor. Since missing action with a deep thigh bruise, Parsons is averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists in seven games.


1. Florida’s start: The Gators have gotten off to slow starts over the past couple of weeks, but they’re dominating opponents in the second half. In their past five games, the Gators averaged 50.2 points after halftime and outscored opponents by an average of 16 points. Florida’s defense has been stellar after halftime, too, holding opponents to only 25 percent on 3-point attempts.

2. Florida’s big men: If the Gators are going to advance beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, they will need to get more help from their interior players. In Florida’s 70-54 loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament championship game, center Vernon Macklin and forwards Alex Tyus and Patric Young combined for only 16 points and 11 rebounds.

3. Johnson & Nunnally: Johnson gets most of UCSB’s attention, but junior forward James Nunnally is a big-time scorer in his own right. Nunnally averaged 16.4 points and 5.4 rebounds and shot 82.9 percent from the foul line. The Gauchos are difficult to stop when Johnson and Nunnally are shooting well. The pair combined for 52 points in a 72-70 loss at Oregon and 35 points in a 68-62 upset at UNLV -- UCSB’s first win over a ranked opponent since 1993.

No. 10 seed Michigan State (19-14) vs. No. 7 seed UCLA (22-10), 9:20 p.m. ET (TBS)


Coach: Tom Izzo (383-160 in 16 seasons at MSU)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 52-23 in 24 appearances

Player to watch: Spartans point guard Kalin Lucas is back in the NCAA tournament, after rupturing his left Achilles tendon in an 85-83 victory over Maryland in the second round last season. After a slow start this season, Lucas averaged 20.1 points in February and 19.8 points in March. He has averaged 13.9 points and 4.6 assists in 11 NCAA tournament games.


Coach: Ben Howland (356-181 in 17 seasons, 188-82 in eight seasons at UCLA)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2009

All-time NCAA record: 99-36 in 44 appearances

Player to watch: Sophomore forward Reeves Nelson leads the Bruins in scoring (13.9 points), rebounds (9.0) and field-goal percentage (57.4 percent). He had 11 double-doubles this season, including 27 points and 16 rebounds in a 71-49 rout of Arizona on Feb. 26. He’s the Bruins’ emotional leader and his teammates tend to play better when the tattooed Nelson is playing with emotion.


1. UCLA guard Malcolm Lee's knee:

The Bruins’ second-leading scorer with 13 points per game, Lee suffered a small cartilage tear in his left knee near the end of a 58-54 victory at Washington State on March 5. Lee, a junior from Moreno Valley, Calif., played 28 minutes in UCLA’s 76-59 loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament last week, scoring six points on 2-for-3 shooting with four rebounds and two assists.

Howland said Lee has practiced four times this week and hasn’t had any problems.

“He’s fine, and he’s actually practiced really well,” Howland said. “I see him getting back to his normal 35 minutes a game.”

2. Jekyll and Hyde: Which UCLA team shows up? Will it be the one that beat then-No. 10 Arizona by 22 points in Los Angeles on Feb. 26 or the one that flopped in an embarrassing 17-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament last week? Which Michigan State team shows up? Will it be the one that defeated then-No. 8 Purdue by 18 points on March 11 or the one that lost to Penn State by 13 points in last week’s Big Ten tournament? Both teams have been plagued by inconsistency throughout their seasons.

3. Michigan State’s defense: The Spartans’ midseason slide was a result of its defense, or more accurately, lack of defense. During a 1-4 downturn against Big Ten foes in late January and early February, Michigan State allowed opponents to shoot 54.3 percent from the floor, including a whopping 50.5 percent on 3-pointers. In the final 10 regular-season games, MSU allowed foes to shoot only 40.4 percent, including 30.8 percent on 3-pointers. Opponents averaged only 61.4 points during that stretch.