DeMarcus Cousins will not be provoked, not on the basketball court.
A big strong 19-year old playing at the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament, the Kentucky freshman center had his intelligence questioned, his back strained, and his patience tested over the last 24 hours.
Emotions came to a boil with 9 minutes remaining in the first half of a offensively challenged semifinal between the Wildcats and fan favorite Cornell. Cousins snared the rebound of teammates DeAndre Liggins wayward 3-pointer, and knocked to the floor by Cornell center Jeff Foote.
Cousins crashed to the floor on his tender back, and the Kentucky bench leapt to its feet in defense of its big man.
“I basically got slung to the ground and I was expecting an intentional foul, but they gave him a regular foul which I thought was crazy,” Cousins said in the locker room following the Wildcats 62-45 victory Thursday night in the Carrier Dome.
“I mean if I made a play even close to that I would have been ejected.”
Since Cousins and his Kentucky teammates arrived as the East Region’s top seed in Syracuse, N.Y. earlier this week, they’ve been the villain: Cornell’s campus was just 55 miles from the Carrier Dome and the Big Red faithful bought up the ticket allotments of the schools travelling from far away.
The Orange’s colors were removed from the floor by the NCAA, and then to add insult to injury, the color red dominated the stands, as over 10,000 Cornell fans were in attendance. The noise and the Big Red were big early, as Cornell raced out to a 10-2 lead by nailing a trio of deep jump shots. The last goal, a shot that counted for three markers, was sunk by senior guard Louis Dale. The long limbs of Foote deftly found the cutters and the shooters, while crowd noise soothed the broken hearts on campus (Syracuse was upset by No. 5 seed Butler, 63-59, in Salt Lake City earlier in the evening).
The Wildcats looked little like the group of four freshmen and one senior (playing in his first NCAA Tournament) that had been advertised. Calmly, Kentucky turned to the one they call “Cuz.” Two straight buckets inside by the 6-foot, 11-inch Cousins started a 12-0 run, that elder statesman Patrick Patterson capped with a 3-pointer in transition.
Celebrity Wildcat fans like actress Ashley Judd, R&B star Drake, and Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo drowned out the Cornell faithful, but for Cousins the worry was no longer on the court.
“My back was just tight,” said Cousins. He left the game and went off to the side of the Kentucky bench to get stretched out.
Foote took immediate advantage, dunking the ball to pull Cornell with two points, 14-12, at 11:06. Then the teams struggled through a scoreless stretch, a common theme at the East Regional.
No. 2 seed West Virginia (30-6) counterbalanced 23 turnovers with 23 offensive rebounds, to defeat No. 11 seed Washington (26-10) by a score of 69-56 in the first semifinal. The Mountaineers needed the first half to figure out how to replace its point guard, and advanced to its third Elite Eight in school history (1959, 2005).
West Virginia, the last Big East team remaining, might need to go to a fouling strategy with Cousins after he hit 7-for-8 from the floor, scoring a team-high 16 points with seven rebounds and four steals in 26 pain filled minutes against Cornell.
Each time he re-entered the game, Cousins got loose. After the teams combined for four points in nearly 5 minutes, the Kentucky center came in for a dunk and then made a steal, one of his game-high four swipes.
Stingy Wildcat defense shut down the potent Big Red shooting attack, limiting the nation’s top 3-point shooting team to just 24% shooting. Primarily guarded by Darius Miller, Cornell sharpshooter Ryan Witman struggled through 3-for-10 night with little openings.
“You know, I was really pleased with the defense we played today,” said Wildcat head coach John Calipari. “The guys really worked hard to make it hard for them.”
That defense carried Kentucky through another ineffective stretch, where they scored just 10 points in the first 15 minutes. “Now I thought the second half we kind of backed up and tried to just get out of the gym,” Calipari said, “and you can’t play that way in the NCAA tournament.”
Cousins scored his second bucket of the half, a right-handed jump hook, at 4:52, off a feed from the other superfrosh, point guard John Wall. Wall handed out a game-high eight assists, along with eight points, seven rebounds, and two steals.
“We learned a lesson about slacking off against a great team,” Cousins simply said. “They made a run and we almost came out with a loss, but we picked it back up and came out with a win.”
Wall agreed with his sore big man: “We didn’t come with the same intensity that we had in the first-half offense, trying to score and look for our plays.”
Kentucky needed him, and Cousins shouldered the load again. Even to a painful ending.
“His back won’t hurt, he’s like a little girl,” said a laughing Wall in the jubilant postgame locker room, “everyone has back problems on this team.”
And what of physicality that West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins’ teams are notorious for? At 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, will the young and sore back down?
Yo, Cuz. What do you think: “We a physical team too, so let’s go play ball."
Photos courtesy of Britney McIntosh of The Kentucky Kernel.