UK advanced to its fourth Final Four in five years with a 68-66 win over Notre Dame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Needless to say that in a game featuring 20 lead changes and a dozen ties, things got a bit tense.
Add in that a Final Four bid was on the line and Kentucky was trying to maintain its perfect record, and, well, you have what we saw Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
It was a game to remember whether you're a fan of the Wildcats (38-0) or the Irish (32-6), and it was one that featured a number of timely plays by Kentucky in order for the Cats to come through with their 38th victory of the year.
"We were just fighting to stay in the game, to be honest with you, and it was nice to see how it finished for these kids," UK head coach John Calipari said.
Trailing by six points with 6:10 left on the clock, Kentucky's quest for a ninth title banner and fourth trip to the Final Four in the last five years was very much in jeopardy. Over that final stretch, five plays stood out in particular.
Tyler Ulis hits a 3-pointer in the corner
Kentucky came out of a 30-second timeout with 6:10 showing on the clock facing its biggest deficit of the game at 59-53.
Freshman guard Tyler Ulis brought the ball up the court and passed it to forward Karl-Anthony Towns outside the 3-point arc. Towns then handed it back to Ulis as the two worked off each other on the right side of the court by the UK bench. After Ulis bounced an entry pass back to the 6-foot-11 freshman on the right block he darted to the corner. When Towns kicked it back out to him there was no hesitation on what to do.
"The whole bench was yelling at me, 'shoot the ball, shoot the ball,' when Karl had it, so I knew I had to knock it down," Ulis said.
The 3-pointer cut UK's deficit in half, and while Zach Auguste would hit a layup for the Irish on the next possession, it was the confidence that Ulis' 3-pointer gave the Cats that carried through and helped swing the momentum back in UK's favor.
"We had to have the 3 by Tyler," Coach Cal said.
Aaron Harrison returns to heroic role with deep 3-pointer
Aaron Harrison has a knack for the dramatic when the calendar flips to March. This much we all know. But after three straight double-digit victories to open the NCAA Tournament, UK had not needed to call on the sophomore sharpshooter in the 2015 Dance to rescue them in a dire situation.
Then Saturday happened.
Trailing 63-61, Aaron Harrison got a pass from Ulis, who immediately pointed toward the basket, or perhaps it was the shot clock that had six seconds showing. Either way, Aaron Harrison didn't hesitate and ripped the net from well beyond NBA 3-point range to give Kentucky its first lead in nearly 12 minutes of game time.
"It was exciting," Aaron Harrison said. "It's always cool when you hit a big shot to see your team's reaction. I just looked over at my bench and I was just happy. I was excited."
"That was a deep shot," his twin brother, Andrew, said. "I mean, it's Aaron. So y'all know what to expect from him."
"Aaron's 3 was huge for us," Ulis said. "It put us up one and he pulled it from deep and that's what he does. He did it, what, three times last year and the kid, he just makes big shots."
Willie Cauley-Stein wins All-America matchup with blocked shot
It was only fitting that the best defensive team in the country had perhaps the biggest play of the game on the defensive end.
With the game tied at 66-all and less than a minute showing on the clock, Notre Dame senior All-American Jerian Grant was matched up with UK junior All-American Willie Cauley-Stein. The Irish's leading scorer vs. the Cats' top defender with a Final Four berth awaiting the winner.
Standing just to the left of the top of the key, Grant did the move that had worked so many times earlier in the night with a quick drive and step back as he attempted a long 3.
"His step-back is vicious," Cauley-Stein said. "It's probably one of the coldest step-backs I've guarded."
The 7-foot tall Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year didn't bite too hard on the drive this time though and with his long wingspan was able to tip Grant's 3-point attempt, causing the ball to float harmlessly into the air like a wounded duck. The two teams then battled to gain possession of the blocked shot, knocking it out of bounds with one second left on the shot clock.
"I had no idea that I was even close to it to block it and I barely tipped it," Cauley-Stein said. "I got my fingertips on it. Dude is crazy. His step-back is probably one of the fastest step-backs that I've guarded and he's good at it. He knows how to set you up to get just enough space and I'm fortunate enough to have even gotten my fingertips on it."
"No other player in the country," Ulis said. "He's 7-foot. The Grant kid, he's really good, he's a great player. He was beating us off the dribble a lot. He hit him with a move, step-back, Willie read it perfectly and blocked the shot, which was the biggest play of the game actually."
Kentucky would then steal the inbounds pass on that final second opportunity and not allow Notre Dame to get a shot off. The sequence gave UK possession with 33.6 seconds to play, the shot clock turned off and the game tied. It also set up the next big play in the game, as a different Harrison showed how strong his nerves are.
Andrew Harrison sinks two game-winning free throws
Knowing he could hold the ball for the final shot of the game, point guard Andrew Harrison waited until there was less than 10 seconds showing before he drove toward the basket.
The 6-6 guard drove hard to the basket and after recognizing Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson beginning to establish his position, Andrew Harrison side stepped, forcing Jackson to move and thus get the block call.
"Andrew tried to avoid him, which made him move instead of just jumping, which is something we do work on a lot but he's been great at," Coach Cal said.
Drawing a foul in a tie game with six seconds left is great, but then making one or both of the ensuing free throws is a whole other task. Luckily for Kentucky, Andrew Harrison was up for it.
"It's usually Aaron making the shots and stuff like that," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm just glad I could make the free throws.
"You had to block out everything. I don't even know what I was thinking at that time. You just block out everything, try to make the shot."
"I didn't look at the first one," his twin brother, Aaron, said. "I tried to look away at the first one. And then when he hit the first one, I knew he was going to make it. I think the first one was the toughest. I had confidence in him, of course." UK swarms Jerian Grant on final possession
After Andrew Harrison's free throws the Cats led by two and had one timeout remaining, while Notre Dame did not have any. Coach Cal was faced with the decision: Call timeout and set up a defense, but also allow Notre Dame to set up a play; or let the players play it out?
"They didn't have a timeout, and I wasn't going to call one," Coach Cal said. "You guys know how I am. I wasn't (going) to call one and let Mike (Brey) design something crazy, so we weren't going to call a timeout."
Notre Dame inbounded the ball to Grant, who ran the length of the court, streaking down the left sideline with Cauley-Stein matching him step for step. Once Grant got to the corner he paused for Cauley-Stein to run by, but then had to double clutch in the air as Andrew Harrison followed closely behind on the side. Then, with 6-10 Trey Lyles guarding in front of him, Grant had to heave up a desperate 3 that appeared to be on target but sailed too long.
For the game, Kentucky trailed for 21:51, but five plays spanning the final six minutes helped push UK out of a hole and into the Final Four.
"I mean, I think we just focused," Aaron Harrison said. "When our back's against the wall, we do what we have to do to win the game."
UK overcame a six-point deficit with less than six minutes to play against Notre Dame to advance to the Final Four. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - The way the Cats closed out, there was surely never any doubt in their mind they would come back and win.
Kentucky was too poised, too confident, too good down the stretch for it to be any other way, right?
"Heck no," Aaron Harrison said.
Andrew Harrison, meanwhile, couldn't help but turn to a higher power in the final minutes of Kentucky's 68-66 win over Notre Dame to reach a fourth Final Four in five seasons.
"I was praying on the bench, man," he said. "I was praying. I don't know. I'm just happy we won. They're a great team. They really outplayed us in some aspects of the game."
Through three-quarters of the game, that was certainly the case.
Notre Dame held a six-point lead with less than six minutes to go. The Fighting Irish were the aggressors and the unbeaten season was very much in peril. For really the first time all year, UK seemed on its heels.
"I said you're playing too cool," John Calipari said, recalling his halftime message. "It's hard to be loose when the other team is playing harder than you."
Perhaps even more than its waves of depth and mountain of talent, this Kentucky team has been remarkable for its ability to stay in the moment. Whether the Cats have faced a nonconference home game, a Southeastern Conference road contest or a win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament matchup, they've been focused solely on the task at hand.
For 34 minutes, that changed.
"I don't know about tight," Aaron Harrison said, "but maybe I think we were looking ahead a little bit because we just want to win it all so bad and maybe we just weren't focused on today as much we should have been."
And all of a sudden, the Cats had their backs against a wall.
"When we was down and it felt like all the momentum was their way and you feel this pressure," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You're making mistakes and Coach is yelling at you and you look up and there's seven minutes left and I'm like, 'I thought there was a minute left.' The pressure was on you and you gotta kinda settle back down and make sure you're playing loose and making sure your team's together."
Just like the Harrison twins admitted doubt crept into their minds, Cauley-Stein is comfortable saying it felt briefly like the magical run might be ending. It only took a second for that to flip.
"I did (feel like UK might lose) when there was about seven minutes left and then I realized there's seven minutes left, like this is what we do," Cauley-Stein said. "If we can get it tied again there's no doubt in my mind that we win it."
Coach Cal set the tone for that.
"My mind is never on we may lose," Calipari said. "My whole mindset all the time is how are we going to win, how do we win this game. That's all I keep saying to myself, how do we win the game. I want them to know we're not playing not to lose; we play to win."
Following their coach's lead, the Cats unleashed a 15-7 run to close the game. They overcame the best per-possession offensive output by an opponent of the season by making their final nine shots and scoring 24 points on their final 13 trips.
"When it's time to win we really want to win, that we can do it when we want to," said Tyler Ulis, who drilled a huge 3 when UK trailed by six. "We gotta be ready, we gotta play like that the entire game. We always at the end of games say we need five stops, five stops, but this game it didn't work out like that. They kept making buckets and we just had to make plays on the other end."
The Cats did, and now they'll dance on and into Final Four showdown with Wisconsin next Saturday in Indianapolis.
"They did enough, and they wanted to win, they do have a will to win, and I know that," Calipari said. "I know that, I've coached them, I know they'll make plays. It's just a matter of you have to keep the game close enough so they can."
Karl-Anthony Towns scored a career-high 25 points to lead UK to a 68-66 win over Notre Dame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Kentucky freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns told his dad that the person who struggled mightily against West Virginia in the Sweet 16 was not him.
The kid who registered one point, two rebounds, one turnover, four fouls and no made field goals in 13 minutes of a 39-point rout of West Virginia was a 6-foot-11 mystery man.
That mystery man did not show up at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night.
Against Notre Dame, Towns played like the Freshman All-American he is, putting together an offensive clinic against the Fighting Irish that they had no answer for. After going 2 for 5 in the first half, Towns went 8 for 8 in the second half to finish with a career-high 25 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block in 25 minutes of action.
"He was unbelievable," UK head coach John Calipari said.
Kentucky didn't miss a shot for the final 12:05 of the game to stave off a Notre Dame team that appeared destined to be the first to knock off the undefeated Wildcats. Instead, UK hit each of its final nine shots, with Towns accounting for four of them.
"I just did a better job of getting better position," Towns said of his second half. "Also I jumped a lot more, used my legs. I was liking that in the first half. And in the second half, I just trusted what the coaching staff told me, and I guess the results speak for themselves."
With Notre Dame essentially refusing to put two defenders on Towns in the paint, the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year excelled. He went to his right with a left baby hook. He went to his left with a right baby hook. He pump faked and went up and under. He finished through contact.
"They didn't do anything to stop him," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "They didn't try to double him. Every other team we play, they double him. They just played a dude on him, straight up, and he'll torch whoever is gonna play straight up on him. You can't just put one player on him. That's what he did. Give him the ball and get out of his way. He's going to find a way to put the ball in there."
Essentially, he showed why many NBA Draft analysts have him pegged as either the No. 1 or the No. 2 pick this summer.
"Offensively, by the time this season winds down, I want people to look and say, wow, a big man, can make free throws, can score around the basket, can play pick and roll defense, not today but he can," Coach Cal said. "Blocked shots, makes his free throws. That's what you want, and I'll tell you, he's the greatest kid, he's a great kid, really is."
And because of that, his essential absence against West Virginia is what was so puzzling. How can a guy go 0 for 3 from the field one game, and then the next game hit 10-of-13 shot attempts while battling foul trouble?
The answer may just be that he's a 19-year-old kid and that he plays on a team loaded with numerous scoring options. If you're not "engaged" in the game, as both he and Coach Cal said he wasn't, you can get lost in the shuffle.
No matter the reason, Towns wasn't worried about it, and his teammates had all the faith in the world that he would bounce back in a big way.
"With this team, you never worry about what you did last game," Towns said. "That wasn't me. I just went out there and I wasn't engaged. I just wasn't playing well. You don't let that game affect how you play this game, especially in a time like this. It's not even a regular season game, this is tournament time. I just took yesterday to work hard and refocus."
"They asked me last game, what do you think Karl's gonna do next game," Ulis said. "I said he's gonna have a big game. It's Karl. He's a great player, one of the best players in the country and he carried us this entire game and I thank him for that.
"He doesn't worry about the last game. It tells you how confident he is in his game and how much he's grown throughout the season, playing through fouls, finishing over the defenders and just listening to what Cal says."
After the game, Towns sat in his locker at Quicken Loans Arena with a swarm of media around him and the Midwest Regional trophy proudly sitting in his lap. Freshly minted the regional's Most Outstanding Player, Towns could hardly get the smile off his face.
A kid wise well beyond his years, though not immune to a few childish actions from time to time, Towns was able to reflect and appreciate the moment. Just because Kentucky was undefeated, just because he was one of the most highly touted players coming out of high school and a likely millionaire in a few months' time doesn't mean what happened Saturday had to happen the way it did.
"There are a lot of things you're supposed to do in life. Sometime it doesn't go your way," Towns said. "Just blessed to have it so far go our way and we have more work to do, but we're going to really cherish this moment and enjoy this moment."
Andrew Harrison hit the game-winning free throws to send UK past Notre Dame and into the Final Four. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Aaron Harrison has been called clutch too many times to count.
In his two Kentucky seasons he's never shied away from a moment, no matter how big.
But even he didn't want any part of the shots his twin brother was about to take with a Final Four berth on the line.
"Free throws is different," Aaron Harrison said. "You gotta sit there and think about free throws. I'm happy it was him."
With six seconds left in an Elite Eight matchup with Notre Dame, Andrew Harrison drove and drew a foul on Demetrius Jackson. Following a timeout called by the Fighting Irish, he toed the line in a 66-66 game, every eye in Quicken Loans Arena trained squarely on him
Except his brother's.
"I didn't look at the first one," Aaron Harrison said. "I tried to look away at the first one."
When the pro-Kentucky crowd roared its approval after the first, Aaron's ears told him all he needed to know. Certain he would make the second, Aaron was able to bear watching as Andrew gave UK (38-0) its final margin of 68-66 in a heart-stopping affair, a margin that remained intact as Jerian Grant missed a contested 3-pointer as time expired.
"You had to block out everything," Andrew Harrison said. "I don't even know what I was thinking at that time. You just block out everything, try to make the shot."
It was a role reversal for the Harrison twins, and for Andrew to be the one to deliver the game-winning points.
In the final timeout, John Calipari elected to put the ball in his point guard's hands. After UK bled the clock, Andrew had options to drive or hit Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, Willie Cauley-Stein for a lob or Aaron at the top of the key.
Seeing a lane, Andrew went on the attack and created the opportunity to prove he has the clutch gene just like his brother, a gene Aaron Harrison showed again just minutes prior.
"He still made the big 3," Andrew Harrison said.
The big 3 came with 3:15 on the clock. The Cats, in the midst of a rally after previously trailing by six points with 6:14 to go, trailed by just two when Aaron Harrison pulled up from the right wing. Nursing a left ring finger still sore after it was dislocated in a Sweet 16 win Thursday night, he had just three points on 1-of-6 shooting when he did.
It was no problem.
"And that was a deep shot," Andrew Harrison said. "I mean, it's Aaron. So y'all know what to expect from him."
Aaron Harrison's 3 was one of nine consecutive shots UK made over the final 10:24 in yet another remarkable display of closing out a game by the Cats. Over its final 13 possessions, UK scored 24 points.
"That's what we do," Aaron Harrison said. "We get stops at winning time. We've been down before in games. It wasn't like we've never been down before and had to come back. We've been down nine with four or five minutes to go and we just had to get stops and get baskets. That's what we do when we need to. When desperation times come, I think we step up."
Towns was foremost among players stepping up when it mattered most. The 6-foot-11 forward played through foul trouble to score nine of his career-best 25 points over that final stretch, including the game-tying basket in the post with 1:12 left.
"I just go in with a lot of confidence and my moves were working," Towns said. "I just kept trying to utilize them and keep switching it up, going from the right hand to the left hand and just kept switching up what I was doing. God bless it was happening and it was working."
For a while, it seemed Towns' dominance would be rendered but a footnote by a clinical Notre Dame offense. The Fighting Irish hit 46.4 percent from the field for the game, using one play repeatedly to flummox UK's historically stingy defense.
"I don't know if our breakdowns, until I watch the tape, were us or Notre Dame being that good offensively," UK head coach John Calipari said. "And I'll tell you the thing on the side pick-and-roll and the empty side pick-and-roll, that's on me as a coach. We never figured it out, we tried doing some different things and they just kept scoring on that, and Mike (Brey) did what he should have, just kept going back at it."
Notre Dame used the play to score 1.16 points per possession, a season high for a UK opponent, but the Cats locked down when it mattered most. The Irish managed just a single field goal over the final five minutes, UK's most impressive stop setting up the game-winning free throws.
Grant, Notre Dame's senior All-American, had the ball at the top of the arc with Cauley-Stein guarding him on a switch. Trying the go-to move that had given Cauley-Stein fits, Grant took a 3 that the presumptive national defensive player of the year somehow blocked.
"I'd be anywhere I needed to be and I think it just was kinda meant to be for me and him, to be on there, be guarding him and going in like that," Cauley-Stein said. "I was just fortunate enough to get my fingertips on it. His step-back is vicious. It's probably one of the coldest step-backs I've guarded. And he hit me with it a couple, early in the game and I was just like, I don't know how to guard this. I don't know. And I just had momentum going at the time and was able to put some fingertips on it."
Cauley-Stein was all over Grant again on the final shot of the game, chasing him from 3-point line to 3-point line with Andrew Harrison alongside him. When the shot missed well long, the celebration began.
"You saw how the game ended," Towns said. "We were jumping and running from the bench. Just because we're supposed to do something doesn't mean it happens. There are a lot of things you're supposed to do in life. Sometime it doesn't go your way. Just blessed to have it so far go our way and we have more work to do, but we're going to really cherish this moment and enjoy this moment."
It's a moment worth enjoying, especially considering UK is making its second Final Four trip in a row and fourth in five seasons. Not only that, the Cats also tied an NCAA record for most wins in a season, a record they share with Coach Cal's teams at Kentucky and Memphis in 2012 and 2008, respectively. On Saturday, UK will go for the record on its own against Wisconsin in the Final Four.
"We're going to enjoy tonight and tomorrow," Andrew Harrison said. "Monday we're going to get back at it. Just like two more games. You really remember the feeling that you had after the (national championship) game last year. So you don't want to have that feeling again."
Trey Lyles is leading Kentucky in scoring in rebounding through three games of the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Trey Lyles is just 19 years old, but his game resembles that of two 36- and 38-year-old NBA superstars.
Lyles grew up logging many hours on the basketball court with his dad, working on shooting angles and the fundamentals of the game. He also watched tape of his favorite players and tried to mimic their every move.
The end result is a guy who is coming into his own on the biggest stage, averaging a team-high 11.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tournament. According to junior Willie Cauley-Stein, Lyles' emergence as a force was simply a matter of time.
"You knew it (in) workouts, you could see the talent level, you could see how he could be a huge factor on a team," Cauley-Stein said. "It's just the fact, when you learn to play in a college setting or play in the college game like that. It started in workouts. You could see him starting to take over a workout or him embracing being tired and being fatigued and still making shots and still doing stuff that's not normal."
And now the guy UK head coach John Calipari routinely labels as Kentucky's X-Factor is causing excruciating headaches to opposing defenses and offenses due to his size and athleticism.
"For his size, the things that he does, I'm saying it again, he's the X-Factor for us," Coach Cal said after UK's first rout of Arkansas. "He's the one that makes us go from pretty good, really good, to uh-oh, what is this I'm watching?"
His favorite player is Kobe Bryant, and his game resembles both a blend of the athletic, 6-foot-6 guard and 6-11 forward Tim Duncan, known as the Big Fundamental. This all makes perfect sense, since the 6-10 Lyles is a natural four playing as a three for the Wildcats.
"Kobe is my favorite player so I watch him a lot," Lyles said. "I watch his workout tapes, highlights and stuff like that. Try to learn from guys. Then again, Tim Duncan is another guy I learned from just being fundamentally sound, learning how to use footwork and angles off the glass, stuff like that."
Cauley-Stein says Lyles has an "old-man game" with the way he doesn't get sped up and with how smooth he plays.
"Plays angles and knows how to use his body," Cauley-Stein said. "You can't really teach it. It's something that you acquire over time."
Against Notre Dame, a team known for its 3-point shooting and offensive prowess, Lyles' defense and offense will both be called upon for Kentucky to advance to back-to-back Final Fours. Only this Final Four would be even more special for the Indianapolis native.
"It would mean a lot," Lyles said. "It would be a great moment for me and my family. It would be exciting to be able to play on that stage in front of a home crowd and stuff like that. It would be exciting.
"I said I wanted to win a national championship in Indy. Now we have the opportunity to do that, but we have to make sure we get there first." Wildcats, Irish show mutual respect before showdown
Against West Virginia, the trash talk from the Mountaineers prior to the two teams' Sweet-16 showdown fueled the Wildcats' fire in a big way. The end result was a UK rout, as the Cats jumped out to an early lead and kept their foot down throughout the game en route to winning 78-39, tying a Sweet 16 record for margin of victory.
Either Notre Dame saw what happened when you poke the bear - err, Wildcats - or the Irish just go about their business in a different manner. Either way, the trash talk from the Sweet 16 didn't carry over to the Elite Eight.
"Everyone talks about their size but if you look at Kentucky's team overall, they're a fabulous team," senior swingman Pat Connaughton said. "In the way they're unselfish, the way they always talk about how they have nine McDonald's All-Americans, and none of them really care about their stats; they care about winning. So they're the true testament of a team."
"They're really good," sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said. "They've got tall guys inside, they've got tall guys on the perimeter, they're just really good all over."
"You just know you're going to have to bring your A game," senior All-America guard Jerian Grant said. "When a team is that dominant, you can't mess around with the game, you can't come out and not be ready to play from the jump."
Kentucky, for its part, showed similar praise when asked to assess their upcoming matchup with the Irish, which sport the second most efficient offense in the country.
"Notre Dame is a great offensive team," Andrew Harrison said, "it's going to be a big challenge."
"They're one of the best 2-point shooting teams and one of the best 3-point shooting teams and one of the most efficient teams in the country," Coach Cal said. "They score in bunches, they can score at the rim, layups, post-ups. They can score on breakdowns. But what I've seen in the last five games is they're really defending. They're playing more physical, they're playing tougher, their rotations are tighter and I think that's why they've gone on this run, because now they can get to 75, 80, and they make it hard for you to do it now."
Willie Cauley-Stein says the lack of trash talk isn't a problem though, and that with a berth into the Final Fourth on the line, looking for an extra edge isn't necessary.
"I think guys are self-motivated," Cauley-Stein said, "and I think guys know exactly how they see themselves playing in the game and going to the game ready to play and take care of business."
Aaron Harrison gives update on finger
Much of Thursday night's demolition of West Virginia was a beautiful sight for Big Blue Nation. Not everything was so pretty though when Aaron Harrison reached for the ball early in the second half and pulled back to reveal his left ring finger wasn't in the exact place it was supposed to be.
"It was awful," Coach Cal said, "and then I kept looking like, is that his right hand or is that his left hand, I couldn't figure it out, and he said left, I said you're good, tape that thing up. And I put him back in, I just wanted him to take a shot or two like to make sure he would feel OK."
After the game, Harrison said his hand was fine and he would definitely play against the Fighting Irish. On Friday, he echoed those sentiments and said he didn't expect it to play a big role Saturday evening.
"It's a little sore but it's not going to be a big factor in the game," Harrison said. "I'm doing a lot better and continue to get treatment and things like that."
Cats playing with something to prove
At 37-0, Kentucky has tied the 10th-ongest winning streak in NCAA Division I men's basketball history. It's also set an NCAA record for the best start to a season in history.
Not bad, right?
Except, Aaron Harrison said there's more left to prove for the Cats. Much more.
"We just want to prove that we're one of the best teams ever," Harrison said. "Just to prove that I think we definitely need to win a national title. That's our goal and that's what we're working for."
UK will face Notre Dame on Saturday in the Elite Eight. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - In the days leading up to Kentucky's matchup versus West Virginia, it was often asked how Kentucky's offense would fare against West Virginia's No.1 turnover-inducing defense.
As everyone saw, it did just fine, doubling up the Mountaineers 78-39 in front of a sold-out Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night.
Now just one game away from its fourth Final Four berth in the past six seasons, the question for Kentucky has reversed from how its offense will handle the opposition's defense, to how the Wildcats' defense will do against Notre Dame's offense.
"Defense is our first priority as a team and that's what we pride ourselves in is being a defensive team," freshman forward Trey Lyles said. "I think that tomorrow going out against a great offensive team is just going to pick it up even more for us."
That defense was on full display against West Virginia. UK scored 18 of the game's first 20 points and held the Mountaineers to just 19.2-percent shooting in the first half. The second half wasn't much better, as West Virginia didn't hit a basket in the second half until 8:42 had ticked off the clock.
Such numbers aren't expected again against the Irish. Notre Dame enters Saturday's showdown third nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, is the No. 1 2-point shooting team in the country, is No. 2 in effective field-goal percentage and No. 3 in offensive turnover percentage.
"They're very precise," Lyles said. "They run their plays, they run everything they're supposed to, to the pinpoint. We just have to go out there and try to disrupt it in any way we can."
After Notre Dame shot 75 percent in the second half against Wichita State and hit nine 3-pointers in the Sweet 16, junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said Kentucky would have to try to hold them to about half that number.
Two big cogs - literally - in doing that will be he and Lyles. While Cauley-Stein's defensive prowess is well documented, Lyles' defense has paired up quite nicely with the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year to form a formidable 6-foot-10 and 7-foot perimeter defense.
"I think I've grown a lot in the defensive aspect of my game having to run around and guard guys who are 6-foot and 6-5, stuff like that," Lyles said. "I feel like defensively my game has developed a lot more than any other area."
He and Cauley-Stein will likely have to face Notre Dame All-America guard Jerian Grant and swingman Pat Connaughton at points during the game, who combined to average 29.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game.
"It's going to bring that competitiveness out," Cauley-Stein said. "But then it's also going to make you cautious. They got the reputation of being a really good offensive team. Well, we got the reputation of being a really good defensive team."
By really good defensive team, Cauley-Stein means historically good. Currently, Kentucky's defense ranks No. 1 nationally in adjusted efficiency, effective field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage, and No. 2 in 2-point percentage and block percentage.
Not to be forgotten, the Cats have the sixt- most efficient offense, averaging 115.4 points per 100 possessions. So how do you stop a team with such balance?
"I don't know if someone has to play a perfect game," UK head coach John Calipari said. "My team knows that every team that's left playing can beat us, we know that. Somebody talked about perfection. We're not perfect; we're undefeated. I mean, we should have lost five or six games. I mean, easily could have lost those games. And we were lucky enough to win, stay undefeated. We're not perfect."
In order for UK's record to remain perfect it will have to continue to guard the 3-point line with the same stingy effort that it has all season. The Irish average over eight made 3-pointers per game while hitting over 39 percent of its attempts. Connaughton averages 2.49 3s per game by himself, and has hit 42.6 percent of his attempts, while Demetrius Jackson is a 43.2-percent outside shooter and V.J. Beachem has hit 41.6 percent and Steve Vasturia is hitting 40.6 percent.
"I think that we just have to force them to drive and take tough 2s because, really, it's tough to take 2s against us," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "I think a team could beat us by hitting a lot of 3s, if we let them take 'em. So that's why we're definitely pressuring them and making them drive."
The differences between Notre Dame and West Virginia aren't limited to each team's offensive abilities. While West Virginia led the country in fouls per game, Notre Dame commits the sixth fewest.
With all that said, Coach Cal said Kentucky will stick to what it has all year: itself, and being the best version of themselves.
"You know, the thought of playing fast or pressing, playing slower, I don't know. How do you play when you play your best?" Coach Cal said in regards to the season-long question of how a team must play in order to beat Kentucky. "But here's the great thing, our team's not worried about that, we just don't want to help them. So let's make sure we're at our best, we're the best version of ourselves, we know how we want to play. ... this is the same kind of game, you can't help Notre Dame. If you do, you're going to lose because they're that good."