Cornell gave it the old Ivy League try before succumbing to the superior physical abilities and depth of a Kentucky team that improved to 35-2 after beating the Big Red, 62-45, in the East Regional semifinals Thursday night at the Carrier Dome.
Although Cornell made an 18-8 run at the start of the second half to cut Kentucky's lead to 40-34 with 5:39 to play, the Wildcats simply pounded it inside to 6-11, 270-pound DeMarcus Cousins, and he helped restore their cushion. It was impossible not to come away impressed by the overwhelming physical gifts Kentucky possesses from Cousins to the quickness of John Wall and the depth at every position on a team with 11 players 6-6 or taller.
With No. 1 seeds Kansas and Syracuse out of the tournament before the Elite Eight, the tendency is to anoint Kentucky when the tournament is only half over. Not so fast, warned Cornell coach Steve Donahue.
When he was asked if Kentucky now has to be the tournament favorite, Donahue exercised caution, suggesting the Wildcats won't have an easy time of it against West Virginia in the East final Saturday night. The Mountaineers play tough physical defense and have a little more length than Cornell on the perimeter to bother the Wildcats' ballhandlers.
"There are a lot of positives about Kentucky," Donahue began. "But I don't necessarily think for 40 minutes that they may be able to handle this against a team like us that's a little longer and more athletic with experience. It may be the next game. West Virginia is terrific."
While Cornell's players had trouble trying to put their magical NCAA run in perspective minutes after such a gut-wrenching loss, Donahue was able to step back and pay tribute to his team. "What this group has accomplished is almost surreal," Donahue said. "I've been in this league for 20 years, and I have had three NBA players on one team that didn't accomplish nearly what this team accomplished.
"I know it sounds corny, but they love each other more than any other team in this tournament, in my opinion. That's why we're good. That sounds crazy, but that's why. When we cut it to six, I thought we had it. I thought this was our game. I had this happen to me so many times where Ryan just comes out and he makes the next one.
"It's an empty feeling, but come on, what we did this year...has just been incredible. I appreciate it. I understand. They will soon."