(The Sports Network)
The fourth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats survived the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament in dramatic fashion, and they are slated to take on the fifth-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers in the East Region's third round this afternoon from the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida.
The winner of this game will battle either George Mason or Ohio State in the "Sweet 16".
Kentucky had its hands full with 13th-seeded Princeton in Thursday's second round, and it took a driving scoop shot in the final seconds to lift the Wildcats to a 59-57 victory. Appearing in its record 51st NCAA Tournament, Kentucky owns a 104-46 all-time record in the event. The Wildcats have won the national title seven times, most recently in 1998, and they have now advanced to the second game in 17 consecutive tournaments. UK head coach John Calipari has only lost his first game in the NCAA Tournament once, and his 26-8 Wildcats enter the third round as one of the youngest teams in the event.
As for West Virginia, which is 21-11 overall, it took on a tough Clemson team from the ACC on Thursday, and a late surge lifted the Mountaineers to an 84-76 triumph. WVU owns a 25-23 mark in what is now 24 trips to the NCAA Tournament and has never won the event. This is the program's sixth NCAA appearance in the last seven seasons, and the only year the Mountaineers didn't get selected to the "Big Dance" during that span they won the NIT. Bob Huggins is making his 19th Division I NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach, and only four active coaches have played in this event more often.
Although Kentucky owns a 13-5 series lead over West Virginia, the Mountaineers beat the Wildcats by a 73-66 final in last year's "Elite Eight".
On Thursday, West Virginia found itself in a 40-40 tie with Clemson at intermission, but coach Huggins' team was able to inch ahead in the second half and put the Tigers away. A balanced offensive attack was key to the victory for the Mountaineers, who had five players reach double figures in the scoring column. Darryl Bryant led the charge with 19 points, and Kevin Jones was close behind with 17 points to go along with his nine rebounds. Joe Mazzulla only had one field goal, but the guard did hit 10 foul shots and finished with 12 points and seven assists. Deniz Kilicli pitched in 11 points off the bench, and Dalton Pepper came through in unexpected fashion with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field and 2-of-2 from the foul line. A 37-31 rebounding margin and a 25-21 edge in points from the foul line helped WVU claim the win. Casey Mitchell leads WVU in scoring this season with 13.7 ppg, but he was held to four points by Clemson. Jones averages 13.3 ppg and 7.4 rpg, and Bryant provides 11.1 ppg. The Mountaineers are generating 70.0 ppg while surrendering 64.5 ppg to foes.
Brandon Knight was 0-of-7 from the floor for Kentucky heading into the final possession of the game against Princeton, but the freshman point guard showed tremendous courage when he drove to the hoop and hit a scoop shot with two seconds remaining to propel his team to victory. Knight handed out five assists with only one turnover in the clash, while fellow guard Darius Miller paced the 'Cats with 17 points. Josh Harrellson came through in a big way with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Terrence Jones posted 10 points. Kentucky shot 51.1 percent from the floor and committed a mere nine turnovers in the contest. Through 34 games this season, Knight is generating a club-best 17.0 ppg, and he has dished out 142 assists. Jones adds 16.3 ppg and 8.7 rpg, while Lamb provides 12.8 ppg. All three of those players are freshmen, while Miller (11.4 ppg) is a junior. The Wildcats are scoring 75.9 ppg while limiting opponents to 63.6 ppg on 39.3 percent field goal efficiency.
Expect Kentucky to avenge last season's loss to West Virginia. Sure, the faces are different for the Wildcats than they were a year ago, but players like Miller certainly remember the 2010 defeat.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Kentucky 77, West Virginia 71