Kansas 88, Kentucky 76
CHICAGO (AP)—Seeing “Kentucky” on the opponent’s jerseys was motivation enough for Brandon Rush.
Knowing Michael Jordan was watching made it a day to remember.
Rush was a career-best 6-of-7 from long range Sunday, including 4-for-4 in the second half as top-seeded Kansas romped past Kentucky 88-76 in an NCAA tournament matchup of two of the game’s most storied programs.
Rush finished with 19 points, and Chicago native Julian Wright scored 15 of his 21 in the second half. The Jayhawks shot a blistering 64 percent in the final 20 minutes to pull away and win their 13th in a row.
“We just had a mind-set that nobody could guard us,” Rush said.
Kind of like another guy who played at the United Center.
The Kansas squad spotted Jordan’s tricked-out Range Rover before the game, and the Jayhawks were thrilled to know His Airness would be watching them.
“I wanted to give him a great performance,” Rush said of Jordan, who watched from a luxury suite. “The whole team wanted to.”
Kansas (32-4) now plays fourth-seeded Southern Illinois on Thursday in the West Regional semifinals in San Jose, Calif.
Kentucky is the winningest program in college history, while Kansas claims Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the game. It’s special whenever they meet, especially considering it doesn’t happen too often. Only 25 times, in fact, and Kentucky had a decided edge for years.
But it’s been all Kansas lately, with the Jayhawks now undefeated in the last three matchups.
This rout was practically a repeat of last year’s meeting between the teams in Lawrence, Kan. Rush led the way in that one, a 73-46 blowout that was Kentucky’s worst loss in Tubby Smith’s 10 years as coach.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats didn’t have Randolph Morris in that one, as he served out a 14-game suspension for entering the 2005 NBA draft. But his presence Sunday made little difference as Kentucky (22-12) lost for the seventh time in 11 games.
Morris finished with 22 points, including 14 from the line. Bobby Perry added 21.
“No one wants to end the season on a loss,” Smith said. “My hat is off to Kansas. They were really ready, they shot it extremely well. We didn’t really have an answer for Brandon Rush.
“We had some chances, but when they are shooting the ball the way they were, it makes it tough to fight back.”
The loss won’t do much to get Smith back in the good graces of Kentucky fans. Despite winning a national championship and five Southeastern Conference titles in his 10 years at Kentucky, Smith has been criticized by the Wildcats faithful in recent weeks for “underachieving.”
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart gave Smith a vote of confidence after the SEC tournament, but the fact it was needed shows just how far from favor Smith has fallen. Smith said Sunday he will meet with Barnhart, but plans to return.
“I expect to be back,” he said. “Just put it that way.”
Kansas likes to get out and run, but Kentucky slowed the Jayhawks down enough in the first half to keep it relatively close.
That changed in a hurry in the second half.
“Mario (Chalmers) told me he was going to start looking for me a lot more in the first couple minutes,” Rush said. “He was going to get me situated and get me into the game.”
Rush opened the second half with a 3 that gave Kansas a nine-point lead, its largest of the game to that point. Perry responded with back-to-back 3s that pulled Kentucky within 39-36 with 18:51 left to play.
But Morris left after picking up his third foul with 17:46 still to play. And just like last year, the Jayhawks steamrolled Kentucky with Morris on the bench.
“He’s critical,” Smith said. “When he went out, that’s when we kind of lost momentum.”
Wright made a jumper and scored on a follow as Kansas ran off eight unanswered points as part of a 13-2 run. An irritated Smith called a timeout, and Sheray Thomas stopped the Kansas run with a layup afterward.
It had all the effect of a speed bump.
Wright scored again, this time on a layup, and Rush hit another 3-pointer that extended Kansas’ lead to 54-40 and brought the Kansas faithful—including Chicago Bull Kirk Hinrich, a member of the 2003 Kansas team that lost to Syracuse in the NCAA final—to its feet.
“In a tournament like this, you can’t hope. You’ve got to go out there and make shots,” said Kentucky guard Ramel Bradley, who had nine assists. “We didn’t do a good job of that today.”
Morris returned with just over 12 minutes to play, but the damage was done. Kansas had found its legs.
Darnell Jackson beat the shot clock buzzer on a layup, and Sherron Collins— another Chicago native—fed Russell Robinson for a fastbreak layup that put the Jayhawks up 62-47 with 9:02 to play.
It was showtime after that, as the Jayhawks put their considerable skills on display with a dizzying array of fast breaks, slick passes and shots that even Jordan might envy.
“I guess it’s just that ‘Kentucky’ on the jersey. It helped my jumper,” Rush said. “Today, I felt pretty good. The team felt pretty good.”
They felt even better when the game ended.
“There’s a little celebrating,” Rush said. “This is our first Sweet 16 as a whole team. We feel pretty happy.”