UK will face Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Metz Camfield of CoachCal.com contributed to this piece
They're 38-0 and have set a number of both program and national records this season. And yet, when you talk to the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats and hear about what goes on in their heads something stands out perhaps more than their immense talent.
Outside of their athletic "genius" as UK head coach John Calipari says, these guys are no different than any other college basketball players around the country.
"We're student-athletes just like everyone else," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "We're required to go to class, we're required to make the grades, so we're just like every other program in that sense."
One thing that is different is the amount of attention these players get, which can make life difficult at times.
"Everything you do is under a microscope and everything is blown up," Aaron Harrison said. "You're just overly criticized and it's tough being a young man here. But it's not a bad place to be, obviously.
"Oh, of course. We have a great amount of fun. I'm not saying that. It's just, you have to be careful. It's a lot of criticism."
Their tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook pages are seen by thousands each and every day. Grown men from opposing teams will heckle and yell at them incessantly during games. Their pictures and highlights have been shown on national TV nearly every day since the calendar turned to February and their bid for an unbeaten season became more realistic.
Thirty-minute TV shows have been dedicated to break down how to beat them, and countless stories have been written online, in magazines and in newspapers tackling the same topic. Despite its thrilling win in the Elite Eight on TBS going down as the most viewed college basketball game of all time on cable TV, they've also been told they're ruining college basketball.
"I mean it didn't bother us because we knew it wasn't the truth," Harrison said about hearing UK was ruining college basketball. "And we know a lot of people say things about us and make up their own theories about us, but most of it's not true."
Perhaps the biggest theory the Cats have had to face this year is if they can become the first team in 39 years to complete an undefeated season with a national championship. Just two wins shy now, freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said the prospect of doing such a thing is hard for somebody to think of at the beginning of the year, much less practice.
"Obviously, coming in, I knew my brothers, we had a great amount of talent, but you never knew were going to jell so well and this season was going to go the way it went," Towns said. "You just were blessed with this opportunity, and you just want to take it as full amount as you can take it as, cherish every moment, and try to end the season with no regrets, and that's what we're going to try to do this weekend."
UK-Wisconsin matchup the same, but different
It's a familiar sight, Kentucky and Wisconsin going head to head with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
Just a year ago, the Cats topped the Badgers on the third of three memorable Aaron Harrison 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament, completing a comeback from five points down with barely six minutes remaining to win, 74-73.
Wisconsin, then, will surely have vengeance on its mind Saturday, right? Aaron Harrison isn't sure that will be a major factor.
"When you get this close and to the Final Four, everyone's motivated," Aaron Harrison said. "... I mean, I'm not really sure how other teams are feeling, but I know we're just as motivated as we've ever been and even more so. We're just going out trying to win games, make statements and play as hard as we can."
Furthermore, the two teams that will take the floor in Lucas Oil Stadium are not the same ones that played in AT&T Stadium last April.
To be sure, both have plenty of returners, but UK has added four talented freshmen to its rotation and lost Julius Randle and James Young to the NBA. For Wisconsin, Ben Brust has graduated and Traevon Jackson is only just playing his way back into the rotation after suffering a right foot injury in January.
And oh yeah, Willie Cauley-Stein is back.
The consensus All-American missed last year's national semifinal with a stress fracture in his ankle, leaving UK to deal with Wisconsin All-American Frank Kaminsky without its top defender. The Cats, throwing everyone from Julius Randle to Marcus Lee to Dakari Johnson at the versatile 7-footer, limited Kaminsky to just eight points on seven shots, including no 3-point tries, but Cauley-Stein still figures to provide a boost.
"You know it's going to be great," Johnson said. "He matches up well with the guys they have on the floor. He gives us just another weapon that we didn't have last year." Wisconsin offense another stiff test for UK
John Calipari was less than 48 hours into preparing for a national semifinal matchup with Wisconsin when he joined the Final Four Coaches' Teleconference on Monday.
He'd already seen everything he needed to out of the Badgers.
"Well, they're outstanding," Coach Cal said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post."
Considering the Fighting Irish scored more points per possession than any UK opponent this season in the Elite Eight, that's high praise.
Wisconsin ranks first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, comfortably ahead of second-place Notre Dame. The Badgers have scored more than a point per possession in 10 consecutive games. They play at a deliberate pace similar to Notre Dame, but Aaron Harrison says the similarities don't go much further.
"It's not the same style, I don't think," he said.
Working in UK's favor on Saturday will be some additional preparation time. Against Notre Dame, the Wildcats had to get ready for a complex, efficient offense in essentially a day. This time around, they have a week.
"I think it showed it's really hard when you have to prepare for a team in a day's span and get ready for a whole different offense with such great shooters," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I think that's what's so great, we have a whole week this week to prepare for Wisconsin and get used to their offense, and get to implement our defense into their offensive game plan and try to make it the most difficult for them as we possibly can."
Towns on the cover of latest Sports Illustrated
For the third time this season, a Kentucky Wildcat is on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Towns is the latest to grace the cover of the famed sports magazine. In a regional cover, Towns is shown overhead scoring two of his career-high 25 points against Notre Dame. To the left of him is a headline reading "From the brink. To the brink. Kentucky closes in on ... 40-0"
The 6-foot-11 freshman was also on the March 16 cover previewing the NCAA Tournament along with frontcourt mates Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Junior forward Alex Poythress was on Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue Nov. 10.
DeMarcus Cousins | Sacramento Kings: 107, Philadelphia 76ers: 106 | March 24, 2015 In a one-point contest that came down to the closing seconds, Cousins' defense stole the spotlight at Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena on Tuesday night. The 6-foot-11 fifth-year veteran posted 33 points (on 17-for-19 free throws), 17 rebounds, four blocks and four steals in the Kings' 25th win of the season. When Philly's Hollis Thompson burst through the lane with hopes of getting to the basket with less than two seconds remaining, Cousins stepped in the lane and stripped the ball, sealing the Sacramento victory. Cats in the Spotlight
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (38-35) Despite only one win in three tries for Phoenix last week, Bledsoe averaged 17.3 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds over the stretch. The Suns defeated the Dallas Mavericks 98-92 on March 22, but fell to the Kings and Portland Trail Blazers on March 25 and 27, respectively. DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (26-46) Besides Cousins' monster performance in the win over Nerlens Noel's Sixers last Tuesday, the big man highlighted his week with victories over former teammates John Wall and the Washington Wizards and Bledsoe and the Suns. Cousins averaged an incredible 29.0 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 2.0 blocks over Sacramento's four-game stretch. The Kings' only loss came at the hands of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans on March 27. Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (38-34) The Pelicans' 102-88 win over Sacramento put an end to a four-game New Orleans losing streak. In the three games that took place last week, Davis averaged 24.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 2.0 steals.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (41-32) In two wins over the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers to start the week, Kanter averaged 26.0 points and 14.0 rebounds for the Thunder, who is fighting for its playoff life. However, OKC dropped its next two contests to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on March 25, and Kanter's former team, the Utah Jazz, on March 28. Kanter averaged 17.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in the losses.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (18-55) With three double-doubles in four Philly games last week, Noel has positioned himself as a frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year in the minds of many of the award's voters. The youthful 76ers defeated the Denver Nuggets 99-85 on March 25, but fell to the Lakers, Kings and Los Angeles Clippers in Philadelphia's other three contests. Noel's stat sheet was highlighted by a career-high 30-point, 14-rebound performance in Friday's 119-98 loss to the Clippers.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (41-32) Wall began his week with two lackluster personal performances in consecutive Wizards blowout losses on the road. However, Wall bounced back with 34- and 32-point scoring outings in Washington's next two games. The Wizards fell to the Indiana Pacers 103-101 on March 25, and defeated the Charlotte Hornets 110-107 on March 27.
John Calipari has coached Kentucky to a fourth Final Four in five seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Do you understand if you're going to lead, you're going to serve?"
When a player feels he is ready to leave John Calipari's Kentucky program, he is subject to the same series of questions Calipari asks all his student-athletes before releasing them to the professional ranks.
"Do you understand how to be a great leader?" Calipari asks.
On the court, Calipari's leadership speaks for itself. The 56-year-old Pennsylvania native has led the Wildcats to the Final Four in four of the past five seasons-- a feat matched in college basketball only by the late John Wooden and 2015 Final Four counterpart Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of the Duke Blue Devils.
"(When) you talk about Mike Krzyzewski, come on," Calipari said. "Wooden, Krzyzewski, and that's about it. My respect for Mike Krzyzewski goes beyond just watching him and what he's done in thousands of games, all that."
In addition to a potential second national title and the sport's only subsequent 40-win undefeated season, Calipari's career achievements have put him in a position for another honor to possibly be bestowed upon him this weekend: induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
"People aren't up for (the Hall of Fame) unless people believe that he belongs," said Krzyzewski. "I think whether it happens this year, it will happen."
Calipari and Krzyzewski, who himself was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, are joined in Indianapolis by two of the Big Ten's most legendary active coaches, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan and Michigan State's Tom Izzo.
"When you talk about the coaches here, when you talk about Bo Ryan, you're talking about one of those guys that walked through the ranks and has done it anywhere he's been," Calipari said. "He was a great assistant before he was a great head coach. He's just a good guy."
Together, Calipari, Krzyzewski and Izzo comprise three of Division I's top five active coaches in terms of Final Four appearances.
"Tommy Izzo and I go so far back," said Calipari. "We're in touch throughout this tournament. He knows what I feel about him. You talk about one of the top two or three coaches, he's it. He's done it every year with every kind of different team. He's done it when he's lost guys, when he's had great players, when he's had great teams."
Izzo echoed Calipari's sentiment, adding a personal endorsement for Calipari's Hall of Fame bid this weekend.
"Well, if you look at it, when you can win at Massachusetts, then go and win at Memphis, then the job he's done at Kentucky is unbelievable," Izzo said. "He doesn't get enough credit for his coaching. Having great players, I mean, there's days that it's easier. I think what people don't realize is there's days when it's more difficult juggling egos, juggling the NBA stuff, juggling the expectations at a school like Kentucky. I do think he's very deserving of being in (the Hall of Fame)."
With a combined 27 Final Four appearances between the four head coaches vying for Monday's coveted national championship trophy, this year's Final Four may just be a true "Mount Rushmore" of college hoops.
"It's a privilege and an honor to be in the class with the people that are (at the Final Four)," said Izzo. "I think you got a lot of coaches that have worked hard to get there and put in their time, put in their years, been graduate assistants on up... That makes it great because I know I have great respect for the other three coaches that are in here."
No. 7 Michigan State will tip-off against No. 1 Duke on Saturday, April 4 at 6:09 p.m. Following the conclusion of that game approximately two and a half hours later, No. 1 Kentucky will face No. 1 Wisconsin in a rematch of last season's Final Four.
UK fans cheer their team on in the NCAA Tournament in Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's become a slogan of sorts for Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and as simple as it may be, it couldn't be more spot on.
"You people are crazy," he says.
He's right, they know it, and most importantly, they love it and are proud of it.
Whether Kentucky is playing in the Bahamas, an opposing Southeastern Conference gym, the West Coast, a tournament venue or Rupp Arena, the venue is sold out and the electricity is at a fever pitch.
Known as one of the most passionate and loyal fan bases in all of sports, collegiate or professional, Big Blue Nation is loud, big and, well, crazy.
"You walk into our arena at home, the upper deck in the corners are filled 40 minutes before the game," Coach Cal said Monday on a teleconference with the other three Final Four head coaches. "What, are you crazy? Why are you here right now? The radio show has 8,000 or 9,000 people that stay after. Our radio show would rank in the top 30 in attendance of games. The other thing is you go on the road, they're chanting. You're like, 'Oh, my gosh, they've taken over the arena.' Like, they do that."
Perhaps nowhere was that more apparent than the SEC Tournament in Nashville this year. Swarms of Big Blue flooded to the Music City, painting the town blue and turning Bridgestone Arena into Rupp Arena South. In fact, even in the days before Kentucky played - thanks to a double bye - there were some games were it was estimated the majority of fans present were Wildcat supporters who couldn't get tickets to the UK games, but simply wanted to be a part of it all.
"I think they're crazy, but I've said it before," Calipari said. "They're nuts. But it makes them what they are and they're passionate about letting everybody know, 'I'm a Kentucky fan.' "
Indeed they are, and that fact isn't lost on Coach Cal, who had his squad play the SEC Tournament for the fans as a way to show his appreciation for their support.
"Our fans, they make an effort to get here," Calipari said prior to the conference tournament. "It's not easy, and they do it. That's why I'm saying, 'Let's play for them. Let them enjoy you for the last time they can see you in person.' Because, again, it's going to be hard for that core group (of fans) to get to the NCAA Tournament."
The end result made the SEC Tournament neutral only by technicality, as the Cats rolled to victory by winning each game by at least 15 points.
After every big play, run or moment, Bridgestone Arena became deafening with cheers of "Go Big Blue." During one sequence in the championship against Arkansas, Razorback cheerleaders who were on the court to help pump up their fans could only look at each other and laugh as the Wildcat chants completely drowned them out.
A similar effect is present at conference road games, where especially when UK has a comfortable lead in the closing minutes, UK fans can be heard over the home crowd.
"It gets you juiced," Willie Cauley-Stein said about Big Blue Nation starting an audible chant in the closing minutes of a 22-point win at a sold-out Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Jan. 17. "You know they're going everywhere you go. You can go all the way to California and we're going to have probably half the fans there because they're crazy, and I love them all. That's why it's so fun playing here."
"Best fans in America, and that's a statement I really believe in," Devin Booker said after the same game. "I've seen a lot of fan bases. I've been everywhere. Just like (Cauley-Stein) said, half of our fans on away games, you see the blue in there when we first get in. They get in before all the other fans. Like I said, just (the) best fans in America."
Though all the tricks of the trade aren't known in terms of how UK fans are getting these tickets, one known method is done through disguise.
In today's day and age, many opposing fans will choose not to sell their tickets to UK fans because they don't want their own fan base to be outnumbered at home - or at a neutral-site venue such as the Final Four in Indianapolis. So what do UK fans do? Naturally, they buy opposing team gear and put that on as a disguise.
"They know not to wear blue when they're trying to get tickets," Coach Cal said. "They have to wear red, orange, another color. People don't want to sell them their tickets. They figure out ways of getting in. They don't tell, because it's a secret. They don't tell anybody. No one knows. How in the world are they getting these tickets?"
The origin of this madness started, Coach Cal says, back in the early years of the UK basketball program, when legendary head coach Adolph Rupp took on any opponent, at any location, at any time. The fans thus took great pride in all of the wins and championships that were filling the trophy cases and record books.
"He came in and established a program out of nothing," Calipari said of Rupp.
At times, UK fans have gotten a bad rap from outsiders who say they can be too passionate and sometimes unrealistic. Coach Cal doesn't completely see it that way, though.
"If I have to deal with their expectations, I would be under the desk in a fetal position," Coach Cal said. "So I don't worry.
"Everybody says, 'Well, you got to win a national title.' No, you got to be significant. They want you in the conversation. I've been here now six years. 'You got to win it or...' No. They'd like you to win it now, they'll be depressed if you don't for maybe a month. But they want (to be) in the conversation. They want (to be) in the conversation in recruiting. They want (to be) in the conversation when you're talking one of the best teams. If they thought you should win it every year, we'd have 125 national titles. Doesn't happen. And they know that."
At Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this weekend, UK fans will hope their beloved Cats can bring home their ninth national title, inching them to within two of UCLA for the most in college basketball history - yet another accolade they would love to tout, and would certainly put a smile on their face.
"Just enjoy all this because that's what we all should be doing," Coach Cal said on his weekly call-in show Monday evening. "Because when this is over, it's over, and only memories. Right now we're living it, so enjoy yourself, have a ball. This team deserves your great karma and prayers and all that you're sending their way. Believe me, they feel all that stuff."
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."