John Clay: Kentucky's Final Four drought ends in flood of emotion

herald-leader sports columnistMarch 28, 2011 

NEWARK, N.J. — Come on now, 13 years is a long, long time.

Too long.

If you are Kentucky and you haven't been to the Final Four since 1998, the longest drought in the history of the greatest tradition in college basketball, it's an eternity.

The Cats had been to four Elite Eights over those past dozen seasons only to watch someone else, whether it was a Tom Izzo or a Dwyane Wade or a Bob Huggins, climb that ladder and cut down those nets.

But then in the early evening of a shining Sunday here at the Prudential Center, there was Josh Harrellson squeezing that orange basketball with triple zeroes on the clock up above and Kentucky 76, North Carolina 69 on the scoreboard, and the senior center wasn't letting go.

"No way," he said, sporting blood on his knee and a smile on his face that could have stretched all the way to St. Charles, Mo.

The drought is over.

"Man," said junior Darius Miller, the kid from Maysville, "we know they're going crazy back home."

They're going crazy everywhere in this nuts-filled 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament from Shocka, er, Shaka Smart and Virginia Commonwealth, to Shelvin Mack and Butler finding their way back, to the wonderful world of Kemba Walker, to now John Calipari's young and unlikely Cats holding off North Carolina in the East Regional finals to earn that ticket to Houston.

"To most people," a media member told Calipari in the post-game news conference, "you're either going to the Final Four a year too early or a year too late."

Calipari just smiled because if you are Kentucky, it's always time to go to the Final Four, even in a year like this, when just more than a month ago, no one could have imagined such a thing.

After all, this was the team that lost five first-round NBA Draft picks. This was the team denied Enes Kanter. This was the team that lost six of eight conference road games, that sat 7-6 in the SEC after an overtime loss at Arkansas, which thought so much of its win that it fired its coach at the end of the season.

"If you had asked me after Arkansas," Calipari said, and then he let the answer die.

Only his team didn't die. It regrouped. It jelled. It started the official Kentucky payback tour. It avenged a loss to Vanderbilt by beating the Commodores in Rupp Arena. It avenged a loss at Florida by beating the Gators not once, but twice.

When the NCAAs rolled around, the train kept on rolling, all night long. Down went West Virginia, which had beaten UK in last year's East Regional finals. Down went the NCAA Selection Committee, which dissed the Cats with a No. 4 seed, then watched Kentucky grind out a heart-stopping 62-60 win over Ohio State, the No. 1 overall seed.

You wondered whether the Cats would have enough left in the tank to gain revenge one more time, on North Carolina, the team that beat Kentucky 75-73 in Chapel Hill back in December.

Turned out, it was a bottomless tank. Brandon Knight scored a game-high 22 points. Harrellson contributed 12 points and eight rebounds. Miller hit a couple of key threes. Terrence Jones snatched seven boards.

And then there was DeAndre Liggins pulling the iron out of red-hot fire. North Carolina had tied the game at 67 when Knight buried a three-pointer. Yet, here came the Heels one more time, closing to within one, 70-69. Ah, but Liggins rose up out of the right corner to drive a three-point nail right through the Tar Heels' sky-blue hearts.

When it was over, there was Calipari, earning his third Final Four with his third school, coming to the stands to find his wife, Ellen. Up on the podium, there were the Cats wearing the T-shirts and dancing the dance of champions. In the locker room, there was Jay-Z, the hip-hop king himself, waiting to congratulate the Kentucky players.

And there was Harrellson clutching the East Regional trophy, and he wasn't letting go of that, either.

"It seems like a dream," said the senior. A dream that was a dozen years and one unlikely season in the making.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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