NEWARK, N.J. — With a hard-earned 76-69 victory over North Carolina finally assured inside the final minute, Kentucky sealed an improbable run to the Final Four with a kiss.
DeAndre Liggins walked to the bench for a timeout and stepped into Coach John Calipari's embrace.
"That was celebration time," Liggins called it.
"I kissed him on the forehead," Calipari said of the gesture that spoke volumes about the rush of emotion caused by this Kentucky team's achievement and the unmistakable affection the coach feels toward his gutsiest player. "I was thinking, he's really sweaty."
This victory — and Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run through Princeton, West Virginia, overall No. 1 seed Ohio State and, lastly, North Carolina — required buckets of sweat.
"We went from Louis to Robinson to Ali," Calipari said, meaning Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
To advance to a rematch with Connecticut next weekend in the national semifinals, Kentucky had to KO Robinson and Ali (aka Ohio State and North Carolina) within 72 hours.
Despite the drain of outlasting the Buckeyes on Friday and the well-chronicled six-man rotation, Kentucky took the initiative from the Tar Heels.
"They were really so much more aggressive in the first half," a teary-eyed UNC Coach Roy Williams said. "Their offense beat our defense. Their defense beat our offense. They were the hungrier team."
Freshman Brandon Knight led the charge with 22 points. His five three-pointers surpassed the four he'd made in UK's three earlier NCAA Tournament games. Each seemed to come at a critical time, none more so than the last.
With North Carolina completing a game-long uphill climb to tie it at 67 with 3:18 left, Knight swished a three-pointer from in front of UK's bench.
"That shot Brandon had, I still picture it in my mind," said Tyler Zeller, who led UNC with 21 points. " ... That was a momentum buster."
UK wasn't safely to the Final Four just yet.
After Zeller's tip-in made it a one-point game with 1:52 left, Liggins twice made big plays.
North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, so influential that Calipari started Liggins with the expressed order to keep him in check, drove for the go-ahead shot. Liggins came out of nowhere — at least Williams couldn't remember who did it — to block Marshall's shot.
"Kendall Marshall drove by me," Liggins said. "My length gave me the ability to block the shot."
Liggins all but clinched a sweet victory by taking a penetrate-and-pitch pass from Darius Miller and hitting a three-pointer from the right corner with 35.6 seconds left. That finished a stat-stuffing night for Liggins that included 12 points, four assists and three steals.
The pace was to Kentucky's liking, given North Carolina's average of 77.8 points per game. The Tar Heels' noted fast-attacking transition game netted only two first-half points, and they finished with just 12 fast-break points.
John Henson's foul trouble came as a bonus. Henson, who had a double-double against UK in December (13 points, 12 rebounds) and averaged one in the NCAA Tournament (17.3 points and 11.0 rebounds), sat the last 6:39 after picking up his third foul.
Two of Henson's fouls were ill-advised. His second came in trying to help trap Knight near midcourt. His third came when he needlessly went over Harrellson's back on the UK player's attempt at a fast-break layup.
"Definitely hurt us," Zeller said. "It made us change what we've been doing the last two, three months."
Henson, who sought a 10th straight double-double (last done by a Tar Heel in 1965: Billy Cunningham), finished with four points, nine rebounds and no blocks.
Going into the game, North Carolina had a 21-2 record when leading at the break and only a 7-5 record when not. So a 38-30 UK lead looked large.
The Tar Heels came out in the second half with a more aggressive defense, which wobbled Kentucky. After turnovers on the first two possessions, Calipari called timeout at the 19:07 mark with the lead down to 38-32.
Kentucky, which had only six first-half turnovers, gave up the ball more frequently, which fueled North Carolina's transition game.
North Carolina tied it at 67 on two Zeller free throws with 3:18 left. That marked the first time since the 13:34 mark of the first half that Kentucky did not lead.
About three game minutes later, Calipari was kissing Liggins.
"He didn't kiss me back," the UK coach advised reporters.
Presumably, all bets are off if Kentucky wins two more games next weekend at the Final Four.