TAMPA, Fla. -- Kentucky freshman point guard Brandon Knight made the winning shot against Princeton Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but it was the only shot he connected on after struggling offensively the entire game.
Knight certainly didn't struggle Saturday when No. 4 seed Kentucky played No. 5 seed West Virginia in an East Region third-round game at St. Pete Times Forum. In fact, Knight showed why he was one of the nation's most highly recruited players coming out of high school last season.
Knight scored 12 of Kentucky's first 16 points, finished with a game-high 30 points as the Wildcats defeated the Mountaineers, 71-63, to advance to the Sweet 16.
"In the beginning of the game, they went under two screens and as a shooter, if someone goes under a screen, I'm looking to shoot the basketball," Knight said. "I felt more confident [against West Virginia than Princeton]. My teammates really helped me out today, finding me and stuff like that and they really stepped their level of play up, which got me more shots."
The Wildcats (27-8) will next play in Newark, N.J., against the winner of today's third-round game between top seed Ohio State (33-2) and No. 8 George Mason (27-6).
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said that the Mountaineers were able to slow down Knight some but in the end couldn't contain him.
"[Knight] was really good," Huggins said. "I thought we did a better job on him after we gave him the first [12 of 16 points]. We did a much better job in the second half but there is a reason why everybody wants to recruit those guys ... they're pretty good. They're talented, they're really, really talented."
Although Knight was hot early, the Mountaineers were able to stay in the game because West Virginia point guard Joe Mazzula was equally as hot. He had 15 of his 20 points in the first half.
The game was close most of the first half until the Mountaineers scored the final eight points to take a 41-33 lead at the break.
But Kentucky coach John Calipari made a key defensive switch -- he moved Knight off Mazzula and had 6-foot-6 wingman DeAndre Liggins guard Mazzula. The move changed the game as Liggins length seemed to bother Mazzula.
"In the first half, we let him do what he wanted," Liggins said. "He had some uncontested layups. We just wanted to make it tough for him in the second half, which I did."
Kentucky opened the second half on a 9-0 run and limited the Mountaineers to only 22 points in the final 20 minutes. West Virginia managed just eight second-half field goals.
Calipari said he knew the focus of postgame media attention would be on Knight because of his scoring. But the Wildcats are advancing because of the way they played defense in the second half and it all started with the way Liggins defended and rebounded.
"What happened for us was we defended better in the second half," Calipari said. "And DeAndre got on whoever ... Mazzula, he went on [West Virginia shooter Casey] Mitchell, he went on whoever. And DeAndre had nine rebounds in this game, if he rebounds like that we are pretty tough to beat."
Huggins said, "They played Liggins on Joe, just to put a little more size on him and we just got all balled up [on offense] again. When we stayed spread we had a better chance, but we're just too small not to spread people. We just get swallowed up in size if we don't spread people."
Although the Wildcats started the second half fast and took a 42-41 lead on a layup by Josh Harrellson with 16:55 remaining, the Mountaineers didn't panic. Mitchell made a four-point play -- he made a 3-pointer, was fouled and made the free throw -- and Truck Bryant made a layup and the Mountaineers led, 55-51, with 7:37 to play and seemed to be back in control.
Calipari, however, called a timeout and the Wildcats went into the post to Terrence Jones, who scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, on consecutive possessions. He scored on two layups and tied the score at 6:36.
Harrellson, who scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds, then made the play of the game and one that summarizes his work ethic. He missed a layup, got the offensive rebound, missed the putback, got the rebound again and put it in for a 57-55 Kentucky lead with 5:27 left.
After Mitchell missed a jumper at the other end, Darius Miller made a 3-pointer at 4:11 and the Wildcats, who led 60-55 at that point, never looked back.
"I just sought an opportunity to go get the ball," Harrellson said. "I missed the first one and just tried to keep it alive. I was trying to fight for my teammates to get us back in the game."
Calipari said of the sequence, "I thought it was the play of the game, the three rebounds and the stick-back. Josh is just fighting, scrambling and scrapping."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org