INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The team pegged for 40-0 now has 30-10 in its sights.
Anybody at Kentucky disappointed?
The Wildcats and all those freshmen are headed to the Final Four — a trip to Big D courtesy of a big shot by Aaron Harrison that kept a late-season streak going only weeks after so much had seemed lost.
Harrison made a 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left Sunday to lift eighth-seeded Kentucky to a 75-72 win over Michigan and send the Wildcats to the program’s 16th Final Four.
“It’s a process,” coach John Calipari said. “Every year, it’s a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out.”
But they figured it out just in time. Not in time to make good on the “40-0” boast that was printed on some T-shirts before the season began, but in plenty of time to make this a season to remember.
Harrison scored all 12 of his points on 3s over the last 8:05 and was Calipari’s obvious choice to take the game-decider after Michigan had tied it at 72 with 31 seconds left.
He took a handoff from his twin brother, Andrew, dribbled three times to the top left of the arc and launched a shot over Michigan’s Caris LeVert.
Harrison backpedaled slowly, almost expressionless, after ball hit twine. Teammates Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle chased him down.
“I was so excited, I kind of blacked out,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know what to think.”
Michigan’s Nik Stauskas missed a desperation heave at the buzzer, and then, it was Harrison’s turn on the bottom of a dog pile. Make that a puppy pile. Eighth-seeded Kentucky is the first all-freshman starting lineup to make the Final Four since the Fab Five at Michigan in 1992.
The Wildcats (28-10) will play Wisconsin next Saturday outside of Dallas at AT&T Stadium. Two more wins and they’ll have the school’s ninth national title.
The second-seeded Wolverines (28-9) ended their season one win shy of a second straight Final Four.
“You’re going to make them score over you,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I thought (LeVert) got his hand up. They did a good job on it. But he made a shot from deep.”
What a ride this has been for this group of Wildcats, an all-new collection of McDonald’s All-Americans who were touted as the team that could be perfect, then dismissed out of hand when the bad losses and bad basketball piled up in January and February.
Calipari got things turned around by March, and for the second straight game in the Midwest Regional, Harrison made the shot that gave the Wildcats the lead for good. On Friday, he made the key 3 in Kentucky’s 74-69 win over Louisville. Kentucky is the first team to knock the defending champion and runner-up out of the same tournament.
“I’ve been around guys who make these kind of plays,” Calipari said. “I’ve always said, ‘You cannot be afraid to miss.‘ He’s not afraid to miss. That’s the whole thing about making those kind of plays. And if he does miss, he’s going to shoot it again.”
It wasn’t all Harrison, of course.
While he was being shut down early, it was Marcus Lee — surprisingly — keeping the Wildcats in the game.
Lee, another of the McDonald’s All-American freshmen on Calipari’s roster, had scored a total of nine points since the beginning of January, relegated to the bench after an early season illness.
In this one, he got minutes that would have normally gone to the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, and finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. Eight of those points came on put-back dunks that were part of Kentucky’s 18 offensive rebounds.
“He told the team I was going to have a big day,” Lee said, when goaded by Calipari to tell reporters what the coach had said before the game. “Knowing us, none of us believed him.”
Randle was a more predictable source for the Wildcats. He finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. He’s a Dallas kid and will play in the sport’s biggest spectacle not far from home.
If that doesn’t feel like hitting the lottery, well, a few weeks later, he probably will. Randle is considered lottery pick material if he decides to go to the NBA, as expected. Others could join him in the Association, the latest group of one-and-done Wildcats that Calipari has put together.
It was never as easy a ride as some hoped it might be. But the kids made it.
“We’ve just got a tough group of guys,” Randle said. “That was the biggest thing, we just never let criticism get to us.”