Indiana sends rival Kentucky home, advances to the Sweet Sixteen

Hoosiers were dropping like flies, but Indiana didn't blink. The remaining players banded together and pulled off a huge win over Kentucky to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

DES MOINES, Iowa --- The Hoosiers were dropping like flies. Robert Johnson's ankle. Juwan Morgan's shoulder. OG Anunoby's foot.

Indiana was running out of bodies at the worst possible time, with a spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line against rival Kentucky. 

When Morgan went down, Tom Crean put his hands on his head, then entered the huddle and told his team: "You've got to have a warrior mentality."

And like they have all season, the Hoosiers banded together through tough times and accomplished as a group what Kentucky couldn't achieve as individuals. 

Indiana 73, Kentucky 67. The Hoosiers (27-7) head back to the Sweet Sixteen against top-seeded North Carolina, the third trip under Crean.

"It's good, man," said senior guard Yogi Ferrell. "I'm 1-0 against Kentucky now. I get to go out as a senior with that win." 

This group has been faced with a lot this season, so much, in fact, that there's nothing you can do that would surprise them. So when Johnson and Morgan went down, the Hoosiers didn't blink. 

Nick Zeisloft, who has had a nice run at Indiana as a shooter off the bench, suddenly had no choice but to check Kentucky guard Jamal Murray. Murray, a likely top 10 pick in the NBA Draft, is perhaps Kentucky's most dangerous offensive weapon. Zeisloft is far from Indiana's best defender.

But without Johnson, Zeisloft had to stay on the floor, and he had to guard Murray.

No problem. Murray was hardly a factor down the stretch. 

"He's made so many strides as a defensive player that I can't even describe it to you," Crean said. "That's the kind of improvement we want in this program."

Meanwhile, Crean gambled to get Ferrell a much-needed rest. With 8:40 to go, Crean inserted walk-on Ryan Burton for Ferrell, and Burton remained on the floor after the under-8 media timeout.

Indiana trailed by a point when Ferrell exited. The game was very much in the balance, and Crean would have been crushed if Kentucky separated from the Hoosiers during the stretch. It took a lot of guts for Crean to make that decision, one that he felt he had to make so that Ferrell would be rested down the stretch.

As with every other decision Crean made on Saturday night, this one worked out perfectly.

Troy Williams drove for the rim for a three-point play before the media timeout, then Crean drew up a set play that resulted in a three-point play from Thomas Bryant out of the timeout. When Ferrell re-entered with 6:53 left -- less than 2 minutes after he went to the bench -- Indiana had a 6-point lead. 

"They probably could do it with it without me, just because I feel like we know our team so well, and we know exactly what we wanna do on the court," Ferrell said. "We could do it almost blind."

It was that stretch that ultimately won the game for the Hoosiers, and it was that stretch that capped off Crean's greatest coaching job of his career. Crean outcoached one of the best in the game in John Calipari, and he did it with less talent and fewer bodies. 

"He's such a great play caller," Ferrell said. "I remember two plays he ran, one for me to get a wide-open layup and Thomas to get a wide-open layup. I think he sees the game differently than I do, especially when all the bullets are flying. Coach Crean should definitely be Coach of the Year, his ability to stay on us. His main thing that gives us confidence is that he believes in every single one of us, from 1 to 16."

Crean has been great with calling plays out of timeouts all season, something that hasn't always been the case in his career. But he also had the perfect gameplan for Cal and Kentucky. The Wildcats built an early lead with Tyler Ulis in the pick and roll game, and Indiana couldn't stop it. 

So as the game went on, Indiana made it harder for Kentucky to play that way. The Hoosiers began icing all the high ball screens, meaning the big (usually Bryant) would jump out and force the dribbler away from the screener. The other post player would rotate to the middle so Ulis couldn't find the big man on the roll, and then Bryant recovered back to his man. 

This strategy not only kept Ulis in check, it also kept the Wildcats from getting the lobs to the rim that make them so dangerous. Marcus Lee scored on one lob in the first half, and Kentucky never got another one. 

"The length and athleticism is something you can't really simulate in practice," said Michigan transfer Max Bielfeldt. "There's a way Kentucky wants to do things, whether it's the dropoffs, the (alley-)oops, whatever. You just gotta figure out Kentucky. And I think you have a lot of teams that have that sort of learning curve at the beginning. But by halftime, we figured out what they wanted. They have something they want to do, and they expect you not to be able to stop it."

This game was everything we thought it'd be, and then some. And it really is a shame that either team had to go home in the round of 32. The intensity of the game, and the atmosphere around it, made it feel like the Final Four. 

The first meeting between the two rivals in four years featured one of the best point-guard matchups the rivalry series has seen. 

Ferrell vs. Ulis. All-American vs. All-American. Senior vs. likely departing sophomore. Neither one ready to be done playing college basketball. 

Ferrell, after looking shell-shocked and tentative early against Ulis and Kentucky's denying defense, played like his All-American self for the final 25 minutes. The Wildcats did everything they could to keep the ball out of Ferrell's hands early in the game, and the Hoosiers had trouble initiating any offense as a result.

Meanwhile, Ulis was rolling on the other end, piling up 12 quick points to Ferrell's 4. Ferrell looked as unsure of himself as I've ever seen, and Ulis had a lot to do with that. 

Then, Ferrell got mad. He started fighting his way to the rim every chance he got, and he forced Ulis into contested jump shots on the other end.

Ferrell's scoring picked up, and Ulis' dropped off. Crean opted to use the longer OG Anunoby against Ulis at times, with great success. The freshman Anunoby also blocked two of Murray's shots and made his life difficult when he guarded him.

"We knew this was a gonna be a high-level game with their ability to score the ball, the way they defend," Ferrell said. "We had a rocky start, and I was just proud of the way we came back. I can't go out and play timid, can't force anything. I feel like when I play aggressive, good things happen for our team."

It was a matchup you rarely get to see in college basketball, and it was a treat to watch up close. Ulis battled all the way 'til the end, finishing with 27 points, but his teammates didn't give him enough help.

Murray shot just 7-of-18 from the field and 1-of-9 from beyond the arc, and no other player scored more than 7 points. The Wildcats' 0.94 points per possession was their lowest of the season.

Inside, Indiana freshman Thomas Bryant dominated Kentucky's big men to the tune of 19 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals, including 17 points in 17 second-half minutes. 

Kentucky's Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere and Alex Poythress combined for a total of 14 points, 15 rebounds and 9 fouls. 

Most importantly for Bryant, though -- he wanted the ball with the game on the line. After missing 2-of-4 free throws to open the door for Kentucky, Bryant went and got the ball again, then confidently knocked down two clutch free throws to seal the win.

"I spent a lot of time recruiting him. His family should be proud of how much better he's gotten," Calipari said. "Tom and the staff have gotten a kid that I really liked, I thought was really good ... I'm going to be honest, I didn't realize he was that good."

The Indiana players are aware of the rivalry with Kentucky and the history behind it, but no Hoosier had played the Wildcats before Saturday, so the 'revenge' motive wasn't exactly there. The players knew how important a win would be to their fans, and in their minds, Kentucky was just the next team in the way on their journey to a title.

They didn't need any extra motivation, but they got it when they read the unusual comments from Kentucky's press conferences on Friday. Isaiah Briscoe said he knew nothing about Ferrell or Indiana. All the players, except Ulis, said they don't watch much basketball and never have, so they don't know anything about the history of the rivalry.

The comments were brief and odd, the opposite of what you usually hear from teams at the NCAA Tournament. The Hoosiers saw them, and they felt like Kentucky was somewhat dismissive of them as an opponent, and that served as bulletin board material.

"Definitely," Collin Hartman said. "People underestimate us all the time. I think that's something that does fuel us."

Chances are, Briscoe knows something about Ferrell now. 

Indiana is moving on, and Kentucky is going home. Hoosier fans have the bragging rights in a heated rivalry again, and this time, they didn't need a buzzer beater to get them. 


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