PHILADELPHIA (Ticker) -- David Bluthenthal's roots extend back to the founding of the University of Southern California. Now, 121 years later, Bluthenthal is on the verge of helping USC make history again.
The junior from Los Angeles was key down the stretch as the Trojans advanced to the NCAA Tournament's "Elite Eight" for the first time since 1954 with an 80-76 victory over Kentucky in an East Region semifinal matchup at the First Union Center.
Bluthenthal hit three 3-pointers in the final 7 1/2 minutes and went 5-of-6 from the foul line in the last 31 seconds as sixth-seeded USC (24-9) recorded a third NCAA Tournament victory for the first time.
The great, great, great grandson of Isaias Hellman, one of the three major donors of the land on which USC sits -- the school was founded in 1880 -- Bluthenthal, albeit indirectly, is now part of two memorable events in Southern Cal history.
"We just did what we've been doing all tournament and that's play good tough defense," said Bluthenthal. "Me personally, I really made a conscious effort to really move my feet on the perimeter. We've been talking on defense a lot more and playing tough." With Kentucky (24-10) threatening to steal a game in which it trailed by 21 points early in the second half, Bluthenthal drained back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Trojans a 67-60 lead with 6 1/2 minutes remaining.
After a driving layup by Wildcats guard Keith Bogans cut the deficit to 70-64, Bluthenthal connected from nearly the same spot on the left wing for a nine-point advantage.
"I knew they were a veteran team and they weren't going to get rattled," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. "We tried to pressure them and force turnovers but we turned the ball over even against their zone." The Wildcats put together a 10-2 run and fought within a point on Erik Daniels' follow with 32 seconds remaining.
But Bluthenthal, one of USC's top free-throw shooters, sealed the game at the foul line, sending the Trojans to Saturday's East Region final against top-seeded Duke or Pac-10 Conference rival UCLA.
"The last three games I've been speechless and I like being speechless," said USC coach Henry Bibby. "The kids worked hard. The kids played defense. They did exactly what we asked them to do." Bluthenthal finished with 27 points, two shy of a career high, and Sam Clancy had 17 with seven rebounds for the Trojans, who nearly ran Kentucky out of the building in the first 10 minutes, racing to a 31-8 lead.
All five USC starters scored before the first officials' timeout. The Trojans held a 43-24 advantage at the break and extended it 11 seconds into the second half when Brian Scalabrine threw down a dunk.
Almost immediately, the momentum shifted. A layup by freshman Jason Parker, who had a season-high 22 points and 13 rebounds, ignited a 22-3 run that got Kentucky right back in a contest on which it seemed ready to quit.
But the Wildcats never were able to tie or take the lead, despite getting within two points on several occasions. Down just 61-60 after a 3-pointer by Keith Bogans, the Wildcats watched Bluthenthal steady the Trojans.
Playing in the "Sweet 16" for the sixth time in seven years, Kentucky was unable to advance despite a tremendous effort from Saul Smith, the son of Tubby Smith.
Maligned for most of his career by the Kentucky faithful, Saul Smith scored 17 points while tying a career high with five 3-pointers. He also had four assists and three steals with just one turnover.
In his four years in Lexington, Saul Smith played for three Southeastern Conference regular-season championship teams, won the SEC tournament title three times and also was part of the 1998 national championship squad.
Smith drained one of his 3-pointers during the 22-3 burst and hit two in between a pair of shots beyond the arc by Bogans near the midway point of the second half. But two baskets by Clancy before Bluthenthal's explosion prevented Kentucky from going on top.
"It's a big win for the program," said Clancy. "It's been so long since this program has done this. It means a lot to us. People kept saying if we lost, people would be proud of us anyway for making it this far. That's not what we had in mind. We were able to go out there and win. Hopefully we can continue on." In the first meeting between the schools in 39 years, USC got 14 points and six rebounds from Jeff Trepagnier and 13 and six from Scalabrine, who also dished out six assists as the Trojans connected on 53 percent (28-of-53) of their shots.
Bluthenthal made six 3-pointers for USC, which was 8-of-14 from long range to overcome a 42-28 rebounding disadvantage. Brandon Granville accumulated eight assists despite picking up his fourth foul with 16:02 remaining.
"In the first half offensively, the guys on my team were driving," said Bluthenthal. "The guy on me was helping out and they were leving me (unguarded) and I had open looks. I was just able to knock them down." Bogans netted 13 points for Kentucky, which committed 16 turnovers while shooting 43.5 percent (30-of-69) from the floor. The Wildcats were 8-of-23 from 3-point range and were outscored at the foul line, 16-8.
"They got us standing around," Tubby Smith added. "It wasn't so much their defense, it was our defense or lack of defense. In the first half, we didn't play with the same passion, the same intensity that you have to play with at this level in order to win." USC is the only school to have played the Wildcats at least three times without losing.