DES MOINES, Iowa—Finally, there are a couple of things that Indiana and Kentucky agree on. There was no doubt on either side of a contentious rivalry Saturday night that the Hoosiers are a heck of a team, and that Thomas Bryant is one outstanding freshman.
“Let me say this: I spent a lot of time recruiting him,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after Indiana moved on to the Sweet 16 with a 73-67 victory. “The biggest thing I want to tell you is his family should be proud of how much better he has gotten . . . I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t realize he was that good.”
Landing Bryant, a 6-10 center from Rochester, New York, who played at Huntington Prep in West Virginia (“Right down the street from us,” Calipari said), stands as a triumph for Indiana in the edgy relationship between the two college superpowers from neighboring states.
The teams stopped their annual series four years ago over various disagreements, including the question of playing home-and-home matchups or one neutral-site game.
The big man chose Indiana (27-7) and has progressed every day since he made that decision. He scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half, made a three-point play at a pivotal moment and sank four free throws in the final 46 seconds, when Kentucky (27-9) kept fouling him in an attempt to chip away.
“I was just staying calm, breathing, not letting my adrenaline pump so much to where it was too much for me,” he said. “My teammates were there, talking to me. We go through this in practice all the time.”
Bryant, the towering first-year player, was a perfect counterpoint to teammate Yogi Ferrell, a 6-foot senior point guard who had 18 points, four assists and only one turnover in his matchup against Kentucky star Tyler Ulis (27 points, three assists, four turnovers). “It’s a tough matchup. He can score around the rim, dish off to his teammates,” Ferrell said. “It was fun playing against him.”
Ferrell is always chattering at his teammates, encouraging and motivating them. “Without his leadership, his wisdom, we wouldn’t be where we are,” said junior forward Troy Williams, who scored 13 points.
The point guard’s influence is so strong that the team can turn the tide in a game even when he is resting on the bench. That is what happened in this game.
The score was tied at 50 with 8:04 left, time for a television timeout. Indiana coach Tom Crean called a play for Bryant, who made the three-point play. “I just wanted to stay on the attack,’’ Bryant said. “Coach told me he wanted me to attack more, get a quick bucket down there. He believes in me and I just went with the coach’s plan.”
Ferrell added, “Thomas played like a veteran, man. He played with unbelievable freedom and confidence.”
After Kentucky’s Derek Willis missed a three-pointer, freshman OG Anunoby hit a three-pointer to put Indiana up 56-50. The Wildcats — without the interior dominance or shooting touch they demonstrated while scorching Stony Brook — never caught up.
“We don’t even look down at these guys as rookies or freshmen. We look to them to be leaders,” forward Troy Williams said of Bryant and Anunoby.
It would have been an impressive effort against anybody, but the Hoosiers knew they weren’t playing against just anybody. “Especially when IU and Kentucky aren’t playing in the regular season anymore,” said Ferrell, an Indiana native. “Now we’re playing on an even bigger stage where a lot more is on the line. So to get a win against such a great team as Kentucky, this is something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”