NEW ORLEANS (AP)—To call this one a yawner would be understating things.
Kentucky’s blowout of East Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA tournament was so thorough that fans were sleeping in the stands—and not even the collective laughs of conscious spectators could awaken some of those caught snoozing on large video boards.
That’s what happens when a No. 1 seed leads by 30 in the first half and keeps piling on.
“This is a neutral venue and you’ve got to have your own energy,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said, recalling what he told his players before the game. “You’ve got to have it from within. You can’t expect (the crowd) to give it to us because it’s not that kind of venue.”
The young Wildcats had little trouble with that, and the Kentucky fans who stayed awake were rewarded with a record performance by Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe’s eight 3-pointers set a new high for a Kentucky player in an NCAA tournament game, and the Wildcats dominated throughout in a 100-71 victory over ETSU on Thursday night in the East Regional. The Wildcats advanced to play Wake Forest, which earned an 81-80 overtime win over Texas.
Scoring 29 points, Bledsoe started 8 of 8 on 3s before finally missing his first from long range late in the second half and finishing 8 of 9. Still, he surpassed Tony Delk’s previous school record of seven 3s in the 1996 championship game victory over Syracuse.
“I was just out there playing,” Bledsoe said. “Coach told me to play defense, and when I play defense it carries over to offense. So that’s what I did.”
Patrick Patterson scored 22 points on 9-of-10 shooting, including a handful of dunks, while John Wall added 17 points and 11 assists for the Wildcats (33-2).
Calipari said ETSU “hit a buzzsaw.”
“Hopefully, we’re this good,” Calipari continued. “I’m not sure if we are, but we’ll see if we can keep it going.”
Micah Williams had 18 points for ETSU (20-15), the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament champs, who trailed by as much as 40 in the second half.
Justin Tubbs added 16 points and Adam Sollazzo 14 for the Buccaneers, who as a 16th seed last season gave Pittsburgh a first-round scare. ETSU simply could not summon a similar performance against the Southeastern Conference champion Wildcats, who have three freshman starters but brushed off any worries about inexperience in the tournament.
Kentucky hit from all areas of the court, seemingly making a 3 for every slam dunk. Kentucky made 15 3-pointers on 33 attempts. The Wildcats shot 51.7 percent overall (31 of 60).
“Our scouting report said they couldn’t make 3s and they made 15,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “So, obviously, if the rest of the tournament they shoot the ball the way they did tonight, they’re obviously going to be a very tough out.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky held the Bucs to 35.9 percent shooting (23 of 64). The Bucs seemed so rattled they had trouble hitting free throws, missing 16 of their 37 attempts from the foul line.
Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins blocked four shots, and Bledsoe had four steals.
“They’re very good at both ends of the floor, and we knew that coming in,” Bartow said. “I’m really, really proud of our team. We’ve had a good year. It’s been a very challenging year. But we knew we’d have to play a great, great game tonight. Just the first half we didn’t play well enough on either end to make it much of a game.”
Kentucky started fast and never looked back. Patterson had 11 points before seven minutes had elapsed, and his breakaway two-handed jam on a long pass from DeAndre Liggins highlighted a 14-0 run that staked the Wildcats to a 23-10 lead.
Bledsoe hit four 3s in the first half, when Kentucky also threw down a slew of alley-oop dunks. The Wildcats widened their lead to 30 when Ramon Harris’ 3 made it 54-24 with 1:11 to go before halftime.
Kentucky was better from 3-point range in the first half (7 of 14), than ETSU was from the free throw line (2 of 11). The Bucs missed their first eight foul shots before Tommy Hubbard put back the last of those misses as he was fouled and converted the three-point play.
Moments later, Kentucky was back on the attack, with Darnell Dodson finding Daniel Orton for an alley-oop jam. Patterson followed with a dunk on a strong baseline move, and after Hubbard’s jumper on the other end, Orton heaved another alley-oop lob that Patterson skied to grab and throw down.
By halftime, Kentucky led 54-26, and it was obvious that youth and inexperience weren’t going to be a problem for Wildcats—not in the first round, anyway.
“I want them to have more fun than any team in this tournament,” Calipari said. “I don’t know how far we can go with a team this inexperienced. But I’ll tell you, if they’re having fun, it will be as far as they can possibly go.”