UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Everywhere Kentucky coach Tubby Smith looks, he is surrounded by underclassmen, ambitious freshmen and sophomores, eager to add to the legend and lore of Wildcats basketball.
"Everybody has to be young some time," Smith said. "This is our time."
That poses challenges and sometimes produces roller coaster basketball. Never was that more evident than Kentucky's first two games of the NCAA tournament when Smith's team barely beat longshot Holy Cross 74-68, then trounced Iowa 92-79.
That returned the Wildcats to the regional semifinals. They open Thursday at Philadelphia against Southern California, which advanced with a 69-54 victory over Oklahoma State and a 74-71 triumph over Boston College.
With youth comes some inconsistency. That was reflected in Kentucky's 3-5 record as Smith tried to piece together a 12-man roster that includes six freshmen. "That was the low point of the season," he said.
But he had a couple of trump cards in Tayshaun Prince and Saul Smith, a junior and senior, who provided the leadership the Wildcats needed.
Prince sparkled in the first two rounds, burning Holy Cross for 27 points and Iowa for 31, including six of eight 3-pointers. Smith, the coach's point guard son, ran the offense flawlessly.
Smith provides poise and Prince produces points. Both delivered big against Iowa, especially when the Hawkeyes flourished early against Kentucky's man-to-man defense.
"We had to adjust," coach Smith said. "They had their way with the man-to-man, so we went to a 2-3 zone."
That worked better, and when Prince began scoring, the Wildcats went on cruise control.
The Trojans also opened that way against Boston College, building a big early lead. But Troy Bell, who scored 32 points, led an Eagles' comeback that sent the game down to the wire. In the final seconds, Bell and Kenny Harley passed on 3-point attempts that might have tied the score and Southern California hung on for the victory.
"I should have taken that last shot," Bell said. "I take responsibility for not taking that last shot."
When Trojans point guard Brandon Granville fouled out with 7:06 left, Robert Hutchinson came off the bench and, after some early shakiness, hit five of six foul shots that proved decisive.
Hutchinson also grabbed a loose ball in the final minute and threw a length-of-the court pass to 6-foot-9 Sam Clancy for a dunk that gave Southern California a five-point lead. "That was the biggest play of the game," coach Henry Bibby said.
The win returned the Trojans to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 40 years. Kentucky, with a record 42 NCAA tournament appearances, has won three national championships - 1978, 1996 and 1998 - since the last time the Trojans got this far.
The Wildcats' see-saw season included winning streaks of seven and eight games but included losses to Arkansas and Florida in the final week. Then the 'Cats did an abrupt about face, winning three straight games and the SEC tournament to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Against Holy Cross, Kentucky looked vulnerable. Against Iowa, it looked impressive.
When the subregional ended and they had advanced, Kentucky's young players were low key and businesslike, in sharp contrast to Southern California's senior-laden lineup, which excitedly celebrated the Trojans' first advance to the Sweet 16 since 1961.
Prince explained his team's restraint.
"We've got a lot of work ahead," he said. "The only time to celebrate is when you win a championship. The first round, second round, you want to be happy but not over-happy."
Kentucky hopes there will be time for that later.
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