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Kentucky Outplay Cornell In NCAA Tourney


The NCAA men's basketball tournament continues to provide thrilling finishes with the demise of top seeded teams. NPR's Mike Pesca was at the games in Syracuse, New York, and he joins us now to talk about it.

Good morning, Mike.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with Syracuse University, which was not playing in Syracuse, but in Salt Lake City - and feeling rather far from home, losing to Butler. What went wrong?

PESCA: Yes. The rule is you can't play on your home court. So there Syracuse was, as a number one seed, playing a team in Butler that the basketball cognoscenti knew were a good team. But still, they have the number five next to their name. In other words, a five seed. So, if they beat a number one seed it would be an upset. And that is indeed what happened.

Butler got out to a 10 point halftime lead. And in the second half they saw it all evaporate. But rather than discuss specifics, here in general, is what is going on in the tournament.

The teams that are seeded one and two, these are teams from the traditional power conferences. But there is such a diminishing difference between these power teams and these really good teams from leagues like Butler's Horizon or the Missouri Valley or the Atlantic 10.

And Butler shows it's every bit as good as Syracuse. The key to this game was the fact that Syracuse had a lot of turnovers - 18 - mostly because Butler stole the ball a lot. Butler, as the basketball guys will tell you, valued the ball more. And that was the key to a victory.

MONTAGNE: And then in the next game it was a similar match up - Xavier versus Kansas State. Was this another upset by a small school?

PESCA: Well, yeah, Xavier is a small school, literally. In terms of enrollment, they have about 4,000 undergrads. Kansas State - over 20,000. Xavier's been good at basketball for a while. But it was a smaller conference versus a big conference. Kansas State plays in the Big 12. This was the best game of the tournament. This game went into double overtime. And every time it went into an extra session, you couldn't believe what was happening.

In regulation, Kansas State was up by three and an Xavier player got fouled. And he hit one, then two, then three free throws. Imagine the pressure on this college kid - Terrell Holloway - as he calmly drains that. And again, in the first overtime, Xavier was down by three. And one of their players - Jordon Crawford, who scored 32 points - he hit a, oh, a shot from so far away, maybe 32 to 35 feet, sent it into the second overtime. But eventually Kansas State showed that it is toughness, and they pulled out the victory.

MONTAGNE: Well, ok. Well, Mike, let's get, quickly, while we have time, to the games you watched there in Syracuse where you are, where West Virginia and Kentucky won. Of course, they were number one and number two seeds.

PESCA: Right, so you'd assume that that would happen, except so far number one seeds are losing and number two seeds are losing. So to analyze the first game that was played. West Virginia really outlasted the University of Washington. West Virginia feeds off the personality of its coach Bobby Huggins. He's a tough guy and they're a tough team. And they out-muscled a University of Washington team that was an 11 seed.

And the last game was a game we were all very excited for, because Kentucky, chalk full of these future NBA players, was taking on an Ivy League school, Cornell. And up until now, Cornell had shown that they belong on the same court as really any great team in the country. They jumped out to a 10-2 lead. But then Kentucky said, hey, this is why we're going to play in the NBA. They went on a 30-6 run to end the half. And they really didn't look back.

And so West Virginia and Kentucky, those two teams will face off to see who's in the final four.

MONTAGNE: Mike, thanks very much.

PESCA: Oh, you're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mike Pesca.

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Mike Pesca
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.