Cats Ride Hollywood Script into National Title Game
April 05, 2014
By Eric Lindsey, CoachCal.com
ARLINGTON, Texas - The script has stayed the same through Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run: Hang around in the first half, get it close by halftime, make a second-half run and then pull out a heart-stopping victory.
With a side of Aaron Harrison heroics.
The Wildcats rode that script again Saturday night in the Final Four and right into the national championship game. The Cats, with a thrilling 74-73 victory over Wisconsin, have a date with Connecticut for the national title.
"Another great game," John Calipari said before putting his hand in the air in disbelief.
What else can he say? This run, these games, these finishes - Hollywood couldn't come up with a script like this.
It's left a man of many words speechless.
"We played seven freshmen, folks," Calipari said. "We played seven freshmen. They're all performing in that stage, under those lights, which is an amazing story."
Aaron Harrison provided the climactic, blockbuster moment again, this time with a 3-pointer and UK down by two. With the clock winding down and Kentucky's dream run fading, Aaron Harrison pulled up from long range with Josh Gasser on him - and nailed it with 5.7 seconds left.
"It was a play for Andrew (Harrison) to dribble down and me to catch it in the corner, but it didn't work out that way so he dribbled and passed it to Dakari (Johnson)," Aaron Harrison said. "He had to get it back in there and I just called for the ball. ... I just made some space and knocked it down."
Before that, Wisconsin had taken the lead when Traevon Jackson baited Andrew Harrison into fouling him on a 3-pointer with 16.4 seconds left. Jackson made the final two free throws after missing the first to give Wisconsin a 73-71 lead, but it was only setting the stage for another iconic moment in a run chock full of them.
After making big 3-pointers against Wichita State, sinking the go-ahead 3 vs. Louisville and then drilling the game-winner against Michigan, teammates say Aaron Harrison was smiling - yes, smiling - just before he took the shot.
"He was smiling like he knew he was going to make it," Andrew Harrison said.
Said Aaron Harrison, who hadn't taken a 3 all game: "I knew I was going to pull up, but I wasn't a hundred percent sure I was going to make it."
Julius Randle never had a doubt it was going to go in. And who could blame him after what's happened during these last few weeks?
"I thought it was good," Randle said of the 24-foot, NBA-range shot. "I have all the faith in the world in him in a situation like that. Just what he did was crazy."
When Jackson missed a jumper inside the 3-point line, the Wildcats (29-10) were headed back to the national title game for the second time in three seasons with youth not seen since Michigan's Fab Five.
"You can't be scared to miss and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shot," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just the feeling that I want to be the one to take the shot, and I'm not afraid to miss the shot."
Wisconsin's Sam Dekker suggested after the game that Aaron Harrison has the "clutch gene."
"I just like winning," Aaron Harrison said. "If to hit that shot, if that's what I have to do to win, that's what I have to do. If it was a rebound or something else, I had to do to win a game, that's what I would try to do for my team."
Apparently all these Cats like winning. A number of them came up with clutch plays again even when UK appeared to be at the end of its good fortunes.
“We got a bunch of stars on this team,” Calipari said.
Down nine in the first half, UK did what did it against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan by rallying late and making it a four-point game at halftime. Randle played a big part in shrinking Wisconsin's lead, scoring six of his first-half nine points in the 3:34 before the break.
“We’re not real good up 10, but for some reason, down 10, they grow hair on their neck,” Calipari said. “And all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Who are these guys?’ ”
But unlike the previous three games, the Cats didn't seize on their late first-half momentum and fell behind seven after Randle was blocked to open the second half and Dekker hit a 3.
Coach Cal knew the game was in the balance and called timeout just 59 seconds into the half.
"I can't tell you (what I said)," Calipari said. "Basically they didn't listen to me at halftime. The first play the guy takes a bad shot and then we leave and give up a 3. I just said, `Was anybody even paying attention to anything I said at halftime?' "
The Cats, as they've done all postseason, responded to their head coach with yet another defining run.
Sparked by defense, strong board work and Dakari Johnson's "and one," UK went on a 15-0 run to take a 51-43 lead. The young ones, they just don't wilt.
"These kids have been resilient," Calipari said.
But Wisconsin would not go away.
The Badgers answered with a 15-4 run of their own, retaking the lead 58-55 with 10:51 to play. From there, well, it was a finish familiar to anyone who has watched UK's previous three games.
The two teams traded punch for punch, dagger for dagger.
When Kentucky looked like it was finally running out of the gas down the stretch, Randle provided an old-fashioned 3-point play, Alex Poythress threw down a ferocious two-hand slam as he was fouled and then followed with a late-game basket on a lob pass from Andrew Harrison to take a 71-69 lead.
“Late in the game, they have an unbelievable will to win,” Calipari said.
Frank Kaminsky - whom UK held in check all night - tied the game at 71 with 1:15 to play.
Andrew Harrison missed a 3-pointer with the game tied at 71 and then fouled Jackson on the ensuing possession, but his twin brother had his back with the game-winning shot. In the postgame locker room, Calipari made Andrew Harrison get up and hug his brother.
"I'm proud," Andrew Harrison said. "He saved me."
With another familiar -- albeit unbelievable -- script, Kentucky has written its way into an improbable opportunity at a national championship on Monday.
It's been a run so unlikely, so hard to believe, that even the Cats don't have perspective on what type of special, unforgettable run they're on.
"No clue," Randle said. "We're just fighting. We believe in what we can do, we believe in our ability and we're just fighting."
They've got one more to go.
"We didn't come down here to get second," Aaron Harrison said.