COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Staying in the luxury hotel was an unexpected perk, and getting a police escort to the arena was another surprise for Florida A&M.
“I kind of felt like the President,” Rattlers guard Demarcus Wilkins said.
It would be tough to find a team who enjoyed its NCAA tournament experience more than Florida A&M, which hated to see it end with a 96-76 loss Friday night to top-seeded Kentucky.
“I wish I could play for another week,” Wilkins said.
Kentucky, meanwhile, feels relieved to be moving on.
Gerald Fitch scored 26 points and Erik Daniels had 18 as the Wildcats (27-4) advanced to the second round by holding off fearless Florida A&M in the St. Louis Regional. Kentucky will face Alabama-Birmingham, a 102-100 winner over Washington.
It was anything but easy for the Wildcats, who didn’t lock up their 13th straight first-round win until midway through the second half against the Rattlers (15-17).
“Getting that first one under your belt is always tough,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “I don’t care who you’re playing or how high you’re seeded.”
For nearly 30 minutes, Florida A&M’s unheralded players, who don’t enjoy the exposure, travel budget or stature of Kentucky’s roster stuffed with high school All-Americans, went toe-to-toe with the powerful Wildcats.
Early on, the Rattlers knew they had the Wildcats, well, rattled.
“I seen it,” said Terrence Woods, who led Florida A&M with 24 points—but just four in the second half. “I told our guys, ‘Let’s just keep it close.’ And the longer we stayed in the game, the more rattled they got.”
The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament champions shot with the Wildcats, rebounded with them and even jawed a little bit with their SEC counterparts.
The Rattlers were within 10 at 77-67 with 9:41 remaining before Kentucky embarked on a 15-2 run that gave them some breathing room and made the final score more lopsided than the game really was.
“They came ready to play,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said of the Rattlers. “They were very impressive to come in here and play like this.”
Florida A&M’s loss dropped No. 16 seeds to 0-80 since the tournament expanded in 1985, but the Rattlers made it fun for their fans—and TV viewers—as long as they could.
They may have also given hope to any team who might face Kentucky in the upcoming rounds of the tourney. Until they were forced to step up their intensity, the Wildcats looked soft on defense, forcing Smith to do far more yelling than he ever imagined.
Kentucky led just 60-52 at the end of a frenetic first half, and Wilkins said he could tell during warmups for the second half that the Wildcats knew they were in a fight.
“They kept peeking over at us,” he said. “They were looking at us in a different way. They thought this was going to be a cupcake. But we came here to get respect and I think we got it.”
Smith wasn’t happy with his team’s defensive effort in the first half, but didn’t rip into his players like they expected.
“Coach was kind of calm,” Chuck Hayes said. “I was expecting him to kind of go off on us. But he approached us a different way and that’s why he’s a great coach.”
Hayes had 12 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists for Kentucky, the tourney’s top seed for the second straight year and ninth time since 1979.
Wilkins had 16 for the Rattlers, who stayed close by making eight 3-pointers in the first half and then hit just three after halftime.
Woods had 20 points in the opening half but felt ill at halftime and had his vital signs checked by the team’s trainer after complaining of light-headedness. He was a different player in the second half, going just 1-of-6 from the field.
Kentucky’s defense had a lot to do with that, too.
“We did a better job on him, and that was the difference,” Fitch said.
After his team beat Lehigh in the tournament’s play-in game earlier this week, Florida A&M coach Mike Gillespie kidded that it would be a moral victory just to hold the Wildcats to under 50 points in a half.
He didn’t say anything about his team scoring 50, though.
Making eight 3s, shooting 55 percent overall and taking it right at Kentucky, Florida A&M had thousands of Kentucky fans who made the four-hour drive from Lexington squirming at halftime.
When the horn sounded, Gillespie pumped his fist and screamed in the direction of the Rattlers’ cheering section, which was celebrating as if the game had ended.
Although his team couldn’t pull off the upset, Gillespie was just as proud afterward.
“We played about as well as we possibly could,” he said. “Our guys believed we were going to win, and I felt we could, too. But with 10 minutes to go, we just ran out of gas.
“We were proud to be here.”