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Unbeaten Kentucky struggles before stopping Cincinnati

Aaron Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats walks off

Aaron Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats walks off the court after defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats, 64-51, during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 21, 2015 in Louisville, Ky. Credit: Getty Images / Joe Robbins

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The message that came out of Cincinnati's rough, tough treatment of Kentucky Saturday was that Kentucky actually can be defeated. But lots of luck trying.

It still is in the hypothetical stage because Kentucky kept its perfect record intact with a 64-51 victory that was far from flawless. The Wildcats improved to 36-0 and earned their place in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 by doing whatever they had to do when they had to do it.

"They're very beatable. Anybody can be beat,'' said Cincinnati forward Octavius Ellis, who emerged as the target of boos from a very loud, very Kentucky Blue crowd at the Yum! Center. Fans responded to the physical play of the Bearcats in general and Ellis in particular, cheering hard when he fouled out after collecting 10 points and nine assists.

"I loved it, I loved it. It showed I was doing something,'' Ellis said. "When all is said and done, it was a fun game.''

But despite outplaying the top seed through much of the first half and trailing by only three with 16:54 left, Cincinnati (23-11) ultimately came up just as empty as all of Kentucky's other opponents.

"This team has a will to win. They have a heart,'' Kentucky coach John Calipari said of his players. "What they learned today is we don't have to shoot the ball well and we can still survive.

"No one is going to surrender. So if you have to fight, you've got to fight.''

The Wildcats, possibly unnerved by the fight that Cincinnati showed, shot only 37 percent from the floor and 27 percent from three-point range. But Aaron Harrison, one of the twin guards, did score 13 points, including the three-pointer with 42 seconds left before intermission that capped a 10-0 run before halftime. It gave Kentucky a 31-24 lead.

"As bad as we've been told that we shot today from the perimeter, it matters when you hit them,'' said 6-11 freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, who had eight points and seven rebounds.

Said Aaron Harrison, "I think we responded pretty well. We knew it was going to be a tough game and an emotional game. So we just had to match their intensity and match their aggressiveness.''

Kentucky players liked the aggressive move that put them ahead to stay. Seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein took off about five feet from the basket, rose over a defender, dunked and drew a foul. His free throw gave the Wildcats a 26-24 lead.

"Nothing new for us,'' Aaron Harrison said. "When he does it, we all scream like we did it.''

Also important were a pair of successive drives for layups by Andrew Harrison, the second becoming part of a three-point play that stretched the lead to 49-37 with 8:32 remaining.

Then there was the stifling interior defense by the immense front line. Kentucky was credited with nine blocks and altered many other shots just through sheer size.

"They've got two 7-footers on the court at the same time, so it's hard to score when you get in the paint. Their guards are big, 6-5 and above,'' said Cincinnati's Troy Caupain (13 points), who went to middle school in Amityville.

"We gave them a good effort, we gave them a good shot. It is hard, but anybody can be beat. You've just got to play hard, play as one,'' Caupain said. "But it is going to be a challenge.''

So far, Kentucky has turned back every challenge.


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