LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Western Kentucky's wild ride finally ended. Now, there's just one bus trip left to make.
Freshman T.J. Price scored 16 of his 21 points in the first half to help Western Kentucky get off to a hot start before top-seeded Kentucky put on a staggering display of athleticism in an 81-66 victory Thursday night to end the Hilltoppers' seven-game winning streak.
"We were counted out long before today," Hilltoppers coach Ray Harper said. "We feel like the Globetrotters. We'd play, get on the bus and travel to the next city. But it was a great group. The future's bright."
Terrence Jones had 22 points and 10 rebounds and Doron Lamb scored 16 for Kentucky, which is expected to contend for its eighth national title.
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."
The Hilltoppers (16-19) 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.
Before that, they won their final two regular season games and four games in four days at the Sun Belt Conference tournament after dealing with a coaching change earlier this season when Ken McDonald was fired after a 5-11 start for Harper.
"Sometimes we didn't really know we were going to get through it," Price said. "We came together; we became a family as a team."
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."
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.
Western Kentucky, which once beat Kentucky in the 1971 NCAA tournament on the way to its only Final Four appearance that was later vacated by the NCAA because of rules violations, still took pride in its effort against the rested and ready Wildcats.
"We kept fighting to the very end," Fant said. "We didn't give up like we haven't all year."
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