Mark Story: Cats busting one jinx at a time in tourney

First Huggins, then Ohio State, now Tar Heels?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 27, 2011 

NEWARK, N.J. — The hexes keep going by the wayside.

Bob Huggins had John Calipari's number.

Going into the NCAA Tournament meeting between Kentucky and West Virginia, the slate read Huggy 8, Cal 1.

Then the scoreboard said Kentucky 71, West Virginia 63.

The Ohio State University had Kentucky's number.

Five times the two schools had played under NCAA Tournament pressure, five times the Buckeyes won.

Then the scoreboard said Kentucky 62, NCAA tourney No. 1 overall seed Ohio State 60.

Now, the UK team that many — most? — had written off as too young, too soft and too weak of will after a late-season road loss at struggling Arkansas stands on the verge of ending UK's historic 12-year Final Four drought.

If the 2010-11 Wildcats can turn the tables on one more historic hex Sunday by beating North Carolina in the East Regional finals, will there have ever been a more dramatic UK run to the national semifinals?

No.

Or a more unlikely team pulling it off?

Probably not.

"I feel a lot of people have not respected us," said forward Terrence Jones. "I think people wrote us off before we got to this point."

Somehow, it just has to be North Carolina as the one last obstacle standing between UK and its long-delayed return to college basketball's promised land.

"We definitely owe them one," Kentucky center Josh Harrellson said Saturday of the Tar Heels. "We have a grudge."

UK's blue-collar hero was referring to Carolina's win against the Cats earlier this season in Chapel Hill. For UK fans, he could have been referring to decades of basketball frustration.

From Dean Smith to Roy Williams, from Phil Ford to Ty Lawson, North Carolina has always tended to hold the upper hand on Kentucky.

The Cats fell to the Tar Heels by two (75-73) in December. They've fallen to the powder blue boys seven times in the last eight meetings. Carolina leads the all-time series with Kentucky 22-11.

In two NCAA Tournament matchups, it is Heels 2, Cats 0.

"We don't think about the history of the programs," said Kentucky guard Brandon Knight. "We just want to win the game."

When the Cats fell by one to Arkansas in Fayetteville Feb. 23, UK's record stood at 19-8. The Cats were 1-7 in true road games. They were 0-6 in games decided by five points or less.

"We let a lot of games slip away from us in the late-game situations," Harrellson said. "We weren't tough enough."

It's hard to imagine a team looking less likely to go on an epic NCAA tourney run filled with historic retribution.

Yet that's what has happened. The largely unsung Kentucky veterans — Harrellson and swingmen DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller — have raised their play off the charts.

At Big Blue Madness, did you envision UK ousting the No. 1-ranked team in the country in the NCAA tourney behind the daring and grit of Liggins and the muscle and will of Harrellson?

Freshman Knight has become one of the most cold-blooded clutch shooters in Kentucky's NCAA history, beating both Princeton (round of 64) and Ohio State with late-game daggers.

Fellow freshmen Jones and Doron Lamb have had positive moments, though neither has yet brought their A Games to the Dance.

That Kentucky's meeting with nemesis North Carolina comes in a regional final somehow seems the perfect setting for a vampire-slaying UK run to reach its moment of truth.

Regional finals have been where Kentucky basketball dreams have all too often gone to die. Of the 45 games Kentucky has lost in NCAA Tournament play, 18 have come in the round of eight.

The Dream Game loss to Louisville (1983). The defeat to Ricky Blanton and LSU ('86). Christian Laettner (1992). Dwyane Wade (2003). Joe Mazzulla (2010).

Both NCAA defeats to North Carolina (1977 and '95).

Regional finals, all.

"I'm from Kentucky, and I know how much this means to everybody in the state," Maysville product Darius Miller said. "We're playing for a lot."

Said Harrellson: "If we can get to the Final Four, there will probably be a riot in the streets in Lexington. Get the riot suits out."

If it happens, what an amazing, jinx-busting route Kentucky will have taken to the party.

What an improbable team it will have been that made the celebration possible.

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