Down by two points at half time, senior Chuck Hayes dominated play in the first five minutes of the final period to spark the Wildcats. After Kelenna Azibuike scored to tie the game as the second period opened, Hayes stole the ball, then after a UK miss, grabbed a rebound then tossed a beautiful pass to freshman Randolph Morris to give UK its first lead of the half 37-35 at the 18:35 mark. The Cats would never relinquish the lead.
Over the next three minutes Hayes would block a shot, grab two more rebounds, create another steal and dish 3 assists as the Cats widened their lead to 42-37. At the 10:17 mark Azibuike hit a three pointer to give the Cats a 50-44 cushion.
Cincinnati, however, would not go away, and behind the play of Jihad Muhammed, Eric Hicks and Jason Maxiell, would claw its way to within one point, 58-57 before going cold in the final six minutes.
"We really did a great job getting the ball into the paint. There were a lot of great passes into Randolph Morris, Chuck and Kelenna," said coach Tubby Smith, "and that made a huge difference. Rajon Rondo came up big."
Indeed, Rondo was all over the floor, "I just went out there with the idea that I was going to do whatever it took for the team to win," Rondo said. In this case Rondo performed in a couple of areas where he had been struggling. He hit two three pointers and went 4-6 from the free throw line.
The Wildcats' tough defense wore down the Bearcats in the second half. For the game Cincinnati shot just 31% from the field and just 25% from three point range. By contrast, the Wildcats shot 51% from the field and an amazing 7-12 (58%) from three point range. And this shooting effort came against the top defense in the country.
"We took good shots tonight," associate coach David Hobbs said, "when you take good shots, you are going to hit some." Kentucky's plan was to get the ball into the paint, "This game was all about toughness. We did a lot of passing from post player to post player. All of our guys went out there and got the job down. This Cincinnati team plays physical."
"We noticed that their big men fronted us a lot," Hobbs continued, "so we brought one of our post men to the top and passed post man to post man and that worked well for us."
The Wildcats opened the contest with an 11-0 run behind buckets from Patrick Sparks, Rondo, Hayes and Azibuike. For the first four minutes of the game, it appeared that Cincinnati would never get untracked. But Nick Williams who would finish the game with a team leading 16 points, canned a three pointer to start the Bearcats' comeback. Down 25-17, the Bearcats went on a 17-6 run to take a 34-41 lead just before halftime.
"We played our perimeter players more than we normally would," Hobbs said, "but we felt like the game was in the balance and the game depended on it. Those guys really came through. We did more substituting by position rather than full substitutions – it worked. And I have to take my hat off to our big guys. They did a great job of blocking out."
The Wildcats will get some rest, spending the night in Indianapolis before heading home.
The Cats (27-5) will then head to Texas on Friday where they will take on Utah, a team that is no stranger to Kentucky in the NCAA.