So the defending champion Wildcats overcame a five-point deficit in the final 1:29 of regulation and Scott Padgett stepped up in overtime for a 92-88 victory over Kansas in the first-ever NCAA tournament meeting of the national powers.
"We weren't ready to go home. We felt like we had something to defend here. I think we just willed that win," said Padgett, who had seven of Kentucky's 13 points and had three rebounds in overtime.
Padgett finished with a career-high 29 points, including a game-tying 3-pointer with 18.9 seconds left in regulation, and 10 rebounds.
Kentucky and Kansas have combined to win 3,435 games. But the only one that matters now is the one earned Sunday by the Wildcats
number 1,747 overall for those counting.
Padgett, whose 3-pointer forced overtime, opened the extra period with a 19-foot jumper and then added five free throws in the final 1:05 for Kentucky (27-8).
The Wildcats, who won the national title in 1996 and were runner-up in 1997 before winning again last year, will play Miami, Ohio, in the round of 16 at St. Louis next Friday.
Miami upset Utah 66-58 in the first game Sunday at the Superdome, preventing a rematch of last year's national title game won by Kentucky 78-69. The Wildcats had also eliminated Utah from the NCAA tourney in 1996 and 1997.
Padgett's 3-pointer with 18.7 seconds left in regulation tied the game at 79-79 and ended a 4:32 stretch in which Kentucky didn't make a field goal. Padgett got the ball from Jamaal Magloire, who had grabbed an offensive rebound after Wayne Turner missed.
"Wayne was driving and everybody collapsed on him. His shot hit the edge of the rim. As soon as I let it go I elt like it was good," said Padgett.
Kansas (23-10) still had a chance in regulation, but freshman Jeff Boschee was stripped by Turner while making a move to the basket. Kenny Gregory came up with the ball in the corner, but couldn't make the shot at the buzzer.
"We came so close to getting what we wanted," said Kansas coach Roy Williams, still without a national title after 11 seasons. "It was a fantastic game ... a great experience for them and a heartbreaking one for us."
Kansas had built a 79-74 lead with a 12-3 run that including four three-point plays. Ryan Robertson hit three free throws and then the Jayhawks hit three 3-pointers in 90 seconds, the last by Boschee with 1:29 left.
The Jayhawks couldn't score again, Boschee missing before Padgett's game-tying basket.
While Padgett led the Wildcats, the team's other two senior starters Turner (19) and Heshimu Evans (14) also scored in double figures.
"It helps when you have veteran players like we have. Everyone was calm and focused," said coach Tubby Smith, going for his second title in as many seasons at Kentucky.
"We stress balance, but we knew they had a mismatch on Scott in there and we wanted to take advantage of it."
Robertson led Kansas with 31 points, including four 3-pointers and 13 of 14 free throws. Boschee scored his 18 points on six 3-pointers.
The Jayhawks made 8-of-14 3-pointers in the second half, but just 1-of-8 in overtime the one by Boschee that tied the game at 84 with 2:14 left.
Maglorie then made a putback at the other end after a botched alley-oop between Turner and Padgett to put the Wildcats ahead to stay.
Kentucky, which is No. 1 in all-time victories, is the only of the top three winningest programs still in the tournament. North Carolina, which is No. 2 between Kentucky and Kansas (1,688) with 1,733 victories, was upset by Weber State in the opening round.
Kansas scored the game's first five points and led 16-8 after Robertson scored high off the glass with 14:29 left in the first half. After the second-teamers got Kentucky back within three points, the starters returned.
Turner hit a 17-footer and after a backcourt turnover by Kansas, Padgett hit a 3-pointer after missing his first four shots to tie the game at 20-20.
The largest margin after that was the 40-36 halftime lead provided when Magloire scored inside against Eric Chenowith. Both teams traded two turnovers in the final 1:35 of the half.
Kentucky led 57-50 after Turner hit a 3-pointer with 11:05 left, Robertson responded with nine straight points on three free throws and two 3-pointers.
The Wildcats hold a 19-3 series lead with their second victory over Kansas this year. Kentucky won 63-45 in December in the Great Eight tournament in the first meeting between the two since 1990.
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