LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb figured Kentucky’s freshmen might have the jitters.
Good thing the sophomores already have plenty of NCAA tournament experience to share.
Jones had 22 points and 10 rebounds, Lamb scored 16 and top-seeded Kentucky began its quest for an eighth national title with an 81-66 victory over Western Kentucky on Thursday night.
“For this to be the first NCAA game for us, freshmen are usually — well I know I was last year — just a little nervous about all the pressure put on us, and it wasn’t even as much pressure last year as it is this year,” Jones said. “I just wanted to tell everybody to have fun and run. We just got going from there.”
On a day when Syracuse nearly became the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a 16, the Wildcats (33-2) clearly relished their growing role as favorites. Freshman and player of the year candidate Anthony Davis added 16 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks for Kentucky, which was never seriously threatened.
“I’ve got a good team and good players,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who never mentioned the Orange’s struggles against UNC-Asheville to his team. “Let’s worry about us playing as well as we can play; if that’s not good enough, then it’s done.”
Jones surprised many when he came back to Kentucky after his freshman year, and he has struggled at times this season with a finger injury and a diminished role because of coach Calipari’s third No. 1 recruiting class. But the sophomores — Jones and Lamb — led the way on a team that’s built a reputation this season as being one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
“Last year, they went through a lot. We made it to the Final Four. We had a lot tough games; we’ve been in a lot of intense games. I feel like they’ve experienced almost as much as any senior,” senior Darius Miller said. “Making it to the Final Four, not everybody gets the chance to experience that. They know what it takes just as well as I do.”
Freshman T.J. Price scored 16 of his 21 points in the first half to help Western Kentucky (16-19) get off to a hot start that briefly silenced the decidedly UK crowd. The Hilltoppers carried an improbable seven-game winning streak into the matchup with the Wildcats.
But the Wildcats, the No. 1 overall seed playing out of the South Regional, began overwhelming Western Kentucky late in the first half, taking advantage of a team that acknowledged before the game it was probably running on fumes.
That didn’t mean the Hilltoppers didn’t keep it entertaining early.
Kentucky raced out to a 10-0 lead in the first 3 minutes before Western Kentucky answered with 12 straight points, capped by Price’s deep 3-pointer over Miller.
Then, Kentucky began to pull away.
Marquis Teague, who finished with 12 points, hit a jumper. Jones followed Teague’s miss with a follow-up slam, and Lamb made a 3 from the left corner that put Kentucky ahead 45-26.
The Hilltoppers went the final 4:33 of the first half without a field goal, culminating with Davis blocking Teeng Akol’s 3-point attempt just before the halftime horn.
Western Kentucky, which got 13 points apiece from freshman George Fant and Kahlil McDonald and 12 from freshman Derrick Gordon, went on to shoot 39.7 percent, compared to 55.6 percent by the Wildcats with Jones and Davis scoring in bunches down low.
“You can’t really guard Terrence if he’s playing his A-game throughout the whole game,” Lamb said. “If Terrence keeps doing that, we’ll go far in this tournament.”
Even with all the talent, Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper believes Kentucky is still missing a piece.
“For them, if they want to advance and win a national championship, going to have to shoot the ball better from perimeter,” Harper said. “But they’re talented; they’re extremely talented. “
Kentucky hasn’t won the title since 1998, and Calipari’s first two Big Blue teams have gotten close, with a loss in the regional finals and the national semifinals respectively.
But the grand prize has eluded Calipari, who won his 500th game in the eyes of the NCAA on Thursday after 42 wins were vacated from his Final Four years with Massachusetts and Memphis. His on-court record stands at 542-154.
Connecticut knocked Kentucky out in the national semifinals last year. When the defending champion Huskies were shown on the big screen, they were loudly booed by the fans who made the 75-mile journey west to Louisville.
Kentucky will face eighth-seeded Iowa State or ninth-seeded UConn in the third round Saturday.
The Hilltoppers came in as a 26-point underdog, by far the longest of long shots in this round, after a series of comebacks that culminated with Tuesday night’s NCAA-record 16-point rally in the final 5 minutes over Mississippi Valley State with President Barack Obama in attendance.
The Wildcats quickly made sure Bradley remained the only sub-.500 team in history to win twice in the tournament when it accomplished the feat in 1955 in a 24-team field. Even so, Harper and the Hilltoppers made the most of the spotlight over the last three days.
“They went up versus the No. 1 team in the country, and they didn’t back down a step,” Harper said. “I’m excited about where we’re going.”