ATLANTA — Indiana’s Christian Watford said he has watched the ESPN commercial that shows his buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Kentucky “a million times.”
Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, two Kentucky players who were on the losing end of that Dec. 10 game, can’t turn off the television quickly enough every time the promo appears.
“It’s everywhere,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
The Wildcats, the No. 1 seed in the South Region, have been reluctant to use words like revenge or payback, but they clearly are eager for another chance against fourth-seeded Indiana in today’s region semifinals after being bombarded with reminders of their only regular season loss for more than three months.
After Kentucky closed the regular season with a victory at Florida on March 4, coach John Calipari said ESPN had “done one of the greatest services for my program by having that advertisement” and that every time his players see it “they just shake their heads. (It) makes them mad.”
Kentucky, a team with six likely NBA players, has not shown the tendency to become complacent despite delivering a near-perfect regular season. But the Wildcats (33-2) did appear lackluster at times during a three-game SEC tournament run that concluded with a loss to Vanderbilt in the final.
When they were challenged in the NCAA tournament’s second round, confronted with a tied score with 16 minutes to play against Iowa State, the Wildcats delivered a show of force that made clear which team remains the favorite to win the national championship.
And now comes an opponent that has Kentucky’s attention after Indiana’s 73-72 victory in December.
Indiana coach Tom Crean called the Wildcats “considerably better” now than they were in the Hoosiers’ victory.
Kidd-Gilchrist simply said, “We’re the best team.”
For starters, Kentucky, one of the nation’s youngest teams, was less experienced on Dec. 10 when three freshmen starters were playing in just their ninth college game.
The Wildcats did not listen to Calipari when he told them to foul Verdell Jones III before he crossed half court in the final seconds, before he flipped a pass out to Watford for the winning 3-pointer.
Then there was Anthony Davis, who picked up two fouls in a one-minute span and spent the final 8 minutes, 3 seconds of the first half on the bench.
Worse, he picked up his fourth foul with 12 minutes to play and wound up playing just 24 minutes.
In 27 games since the loss, Davis has not picked up more than three fouls in a game.
“We want to play a game with no fouls,” Calipari said.
The Wildcats have also made progress at the free throw line. In the final 49 seconds of the Indiana loss, Davis and Doron Lamb missed two of three attempts, including Davis’s miss on the front end of a one-and-one.
Davis in particular has made 75.5 percent of his free throw attempts since that game. And Kentucky made all six of its attempts to close out Florida in the final 34 seconds of the SEC tournament semifinal victory.
The Wildcats also made all six of their attempts in the last 26 seconds of a victory against Vanderbilt on Feb. 25.
What’s more, Jones is playing better. With just four points and six turnovers, Jones was a “no-show” in the loss, Calipari said.
Jones is averaging 14.4 points and 10.4 rebounds during his last five games.