SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Big Red came readied for the big upset. Cornell turned the regional semifinal into a home game, with fans dressed in red and chanting, "Let's Go, Red!" in nearly every section of the massive Carrier Dome.
When Cornell pounced to 10-2 lead, the roar could be heard 55 miles away on its campus in Ithaca, N.Y.
But you don't have to be an Ivy Leaguer to know the real team to beat didn't come in red, but Big Blue.
John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson stopped Cornell's captivating NCAA tournament run, giving the top-seeded Wildcats a 62-45 win Thursday night in the East Regional semifinals.
"They're a group that has a will to win," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "But they hadn't been in a game like this where the other team makes a little run ... and we got away from playing how we play."
Only for a little bit.
Kentucky overcame the early deficit with a swarming defense, spoiling all the fun at Cornell's loudest and largest pep rally.
Calipari has the Wildcats (35-2) in the regional final in his first season, erasing much of the sting of the program's decade-long slide from the top.
The climb back is nearly complete. Kentucky moved within one win of its first Final Four since winning the national championship in 1998 and will play second-seeded West Virginia on Saturday.
In an NCAA tournament gone wild with upsets, it's 1 vs. 2 with a trip to the Final Four in Indianapolis at stake.
With much of the crowd — and the country — pulling for an upset by the 12th-seeded Ivy Leaguers, Cornell bolted to a 10-2 lead in the opening minutes.
"I think we did a great job landing the first punch," Cornell center Jeff Foote said. "They're a very talented team. Their skill and talent is going to show eventually."
All the fan adulation and media hype shifted to Cornell this week after Big Red (29-5) stunned the field with an improbable run to the round of 16. This was no Revenge of the Nerds — they proved they could they play with the big boys.
The nation's top 3-point shooting team continuously misfired from beyond the arc and Cornell couldn't catch up against a Kentucky lineup that could stage a reunion at the NBA's 2012 Rookie Challenge.
After storming to two wins by a combined 59 points in the first two rounds, the Wildcats got all they could handle. Cornell pounced to that early lead, then sliced a 17-point deficit to six late in the second half.
Louis Dale hit a 3 that made it 40-34 and Ryan Wittman nailed another to keep it at 46-37 with 3:47 left.
But Eric Bledsoe hit a short jumper with one tick left on the 35-second shot clock to push Kentucky's lead to 12. The Wildcats finally put away Cornell for good from the free-throw line.
Cousins scored 16 points and Patterson had nine points and 12 rebounds for Kentucky.
Dale led Cornell with 17 points. The Big Red shot just 5 for 21 on 3s after shooting 43 percent this season.
"I think it was just kind of a thing where we were being a little too passive, not being strong with the ball," Wittman said.
Ashley Judd had her usual great seat behind Kentucky's bench to support the Wildcats. She was easy to spot — she was the Kentucky fan.
OK, so there were a few patches of Big Blue in the Carrier Dome. But this may as well have been a Cornell home game.
Kentucky was booed out of the building when it hit the court only moments after West Virginia beat Washington 69-56. The crowd roared and rattled the roof when Cornell sprinted out for warmups as chants of "Let's go Red!" echoed throughout the dome. Some fans behind the basket boldly chanted "Overrated!" as the Wildcats warmed up.
For about 5 minutes, it looked like they might be right. Foote backed down Cousins for the first basket and Wittman and Dale each hit 3s for the stunning eight-point lead that left the Wildcats red-faced.
The Wildcats answered with a 12-0 run to take a lead they'd never surrender and hush the Cornell fans.
Kentucky is back with a vengeance and trying to win the regional final for the first time since '98. The Wildcats a win short of the Final Four in 1999, 2003 and 2005.
"I thought the second half, we kind of backed up and tried to just get out of the gym," Calipari said. "You can't play that way in the NCAA tournament, but that's OK. We learned a great lesson. We gave them a chance to maybe clip us."
It was quite a fun run for Cornell. The fans chanted "Thank you, seniors!" in the waning minutes in appreciation of all Foote, Wittman and Dale have done to make Cornell the three-time defending Ivy League champs.
"We're not doing this for personal stuff. We're a team out there," Wittman said. "We're going out there and having fun playing with our best friends."
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