The University of Kentucky is back in the Final Four of college basketball’s national men’s tournament for the 15th time, while Kansas earned a 14th trip.
Kentucky opened a 20-point halftime lead and defeated Baylor University 82-70 yesterday in the South Regional final in Atlanta. The University of Kansas used a game-ending 12-0 scoring run to beat the University of North Carolina 80-67 in the Midwest Regional final in St. Louis, Missouri.
Only three schools have been to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament’s Final Four as many or more times than Kentucky and Kansas. Kentucky (36-2) plays Louisville (30-9) and Kansas (31-6) meets Ohio State (31-7), both on March 31 in New Orleans, for berths in the April 2 championship game.
Kentucky is the lone No. 1 regional seed to reach the Final Four, one year after losing to eventual champion Connecticut in the national semifinals. Kansas was the second seed in the Midwest, Ohio State the No. 2 team in the East and Louisville was seeded fourth in the Western Regional.
“All that amount of work that we put in that whole year and we lost like that, it really hurt us,” Kentucky senior guard Darius Miller said about last season’s Final Four loss. “That was kind of motivation for us this year too. We know how it feels to lose, and we don’t want to feel that way again.”
Both Final Four games are rematches.
State rivals Kentucky and Louisville will play three months after the Wildcats won 69-62 in Lexington. Kentucky is an 8.5-point favorite, the biggest spread for a Final Four game since 1999, according to Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
“They are a very talented team and they compete,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is in the Final Four for a fourth time. “I’m going to enjoy this. I’m not worried about who we’re playing. I’m just happy we’re still playing.”
Kansas beat Ohio State 78-67 at home on Dec. 10, though the Buckeyes played without leading scorer Jared Sullinger. Ohio State is listed as a 2.5-point favorite this time, according to Nevada oddsmakers.
“The last time we played them they had their best player on the bench and it was a home game, so it’s definitely their chance to get back at us,” said Kansas senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, who scored a team-high 22 points in yesterday’s win. “But we feel like we didn’t play our best that game either.”
Kentucky is two wins from its eighth championship, second only to the 11 of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Kansas won the last of its three titles in 2008, Louisville has won two championships and Ohio State claimed its lone NCAA tournament victory in 1960.
After falling behind Baylor 10-5 during the opening minutes yesterday, Kentucky went on a 16-0 scoring run and led 42-22 at halftime. The Wildcats pushed their lead to 51-28 less than four minutes into the second half.
Baylor (30-8) never got closer than 10 points the rest of the way in suffering its first loss of the season against a school outside the Big 12 Conference.
“This team is actually even better than I thought,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said of the Wildcats. “We definitely haven’t played a better team than them all year.”
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored a team-high 19 points for the Wildcats, while fellow freshman forward Anthony Davis had 18 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots. Kentucky’s 109 NCAA tournament wins are the most in college basketball history, one more than North Carolina.
Quincy Acy scored 22 points and Pierre Jackson had 21 for Baylor, which shot 39 percent to Kentucky’s 53 percent.
Kansas held a 68-67 lead over North Carolina and former coach Roy Williams with 3:58 remaining before closing the game with 12 unanswered points.
“We just switched our defense up a little bit and it kind of took them out of what they wanted to run,” Taylor added.
Thomas Robinson finished with 18 points and nine rebounds for the Jayhawks, who won for the fourth time in 10 meetings against North Carolina. The previous four matchups between the schools had come in the Final Four.
James Michael McAdoo had 15 points and Harrison Barnes added 13 for North Carolina (32-6), which played without starting point guard Kendall Marshall because of a broken wrist. The Tar Heels were denied a record-extending 19th Final Four trip, while UCLA has made 17 trips to the national semifinals and Duke 15.