DES MOINES, Iowa — Five days ago, in the finals of the America East tournament, Stony Brook stared at a 15-point deficit five minutes into the second half and shrugged it off.
It could not do the same against Kentucky.
Kentucky, as you know, is not Vermont. The Wildcats used a stifling defensive effort to offset a poor first half of shooting on Thursday, denying Stony Brook in the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance. With the 85-57 victory at Wells Fargo Arena, No. 4-seeded Kentucky advanced to face 5-seed Indiana here on Saturday.
The 13th-seeded Seawolves hardly stood a chance in the opening round of the East Region against the Wildcats’ suffocating defense, which had an NCAA tournament-record 15 blocked shots.
Stony Brook missed 14 straight shots in the first half. At one point, it was 3-for-27 from the field. Neither team made a 3-pointer in the opening 20 minutes.
The difference? Well, Kentucky’s roster is stocked with dominating athletes, like freshman Skal Labissiere, who blocked five shots in his first 10 minutes of action on Thursday. Kentucky
The Seawolves, despite their 26 wins, couldn’t challenge the Wildcats, because they didn’t operate smoothly on either ends of the floor. Senior forward Jameel Warney, who scored 43 points last week against Vermont, fought hard to score 23 on 10-of-21 shooting.
Offensively, the first half was a futile exercise for both teams. Kentucky led 33-19 at the break despite shooting 32.4 percent (11 of 34).
Derek Willis delivered the Wildcats’ first 3-pointer four minutes into the second half, pushing the Wildcats’ lead to 22 points. Kentucky shot 75.9 percent in the second half to pull away, as guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray kicked the offense into rhythm.
The final 20 minutes more resembled Kentucky’s second half of the regular season, when it shot well against SEC foes, especially from long range.
But the ability to summon a top defensive effort when the offense disappeared for the first 20 minutes on Thursday might help these young Wildcats in the tournament.
Indiana, which shot 64.9 percent from the field in its 25-point victory over Chattanooga, figures to offer a true test on Saturday.