On to the Final Four! Kentucky takes down Michigan on Aaron Harrison three-pointer

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 30, 2014 

  • FINAL FOUR

    At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas

    Saturday: Florida vs. Connecticut, 6:09 p.m. (TBS); Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, 8:49 p.m. (TBS)

    Monday, April 7: National championship game, 9:10 p.m. (CBS)

    KENTUCKY VS. WISCONSIN

    Records: No. 8 seed Kentucky 28-10, No. 2 seed Wisconsin 30-7

    Series: Kentucky leads 3-1

    Last meeting: Kentucky won 63-57 on March 27, 2003, in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinals in Minneapolis

    Fun fact: Wisconsin was Kentucky's first-ever opponent in Rupp Arena. The Wildcats beat the Badgers 72-64 on Nov. 27, 1976.

INDIANAPOLIS — With crutches by his side, Willie Cauley-Stein watched from the bench as his Kentucky teammates played Michigan on Sunday in a game bursting with the possibility to produce something enduring.

A trip to the Final Four seemed almost beside the point.

As so often happens in the NCAA Tournament, an unlikely hero emerged to sprinkle anything-can-happen magic. Marcus Lee compensated for the absence of Cauley-Stein, who injured an ankle in Friday's victory over Louisville.

Lee's 10 points — he'd scored only nine since Nov. 27 — buoyed Kentucky. Then the hero of Kentucky's victory 48 hours earlier returned for an encore.

Aaron Harrison, who did not score until the 8:05 mark of the second half, hit a high-arching three-pointer over Caris LeVert's blanketing defense to give Kentucky a 75-72 victory.

That shot — farther away from the basket and much more hotly contested than the winner against Louisville — came with 2.6 seconds left and punctuated a furious finish that saw four clutch scores in the final two minutes.

"I'm not really afraid to miss, really," said Harrison, who hit a go-ahead shot against Louisville with 39.1 seconds left on Friday. "Even if I had a bad game like today, big shots are big shots. I just like to take big shots."

And March is March, the time when man and moment intersect.

"You can be mad if you want," Michigan forward Jon Horford said. "But, I mean, if you made a guy hit a tough shot that they don't normally hit, shake their hand."

Getting back to the mere facts, Kentucky improved to 28-10 and advanced to the Final Four next weekend in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the Cats lost this season to Baylor in a game that typified a regular season marked by doubt and frustration.

Kentucky's 16th trip to the Final Four is the program's third under Coach John Calipari. Kentucky won the national title in 2012 and reached the national semifinals in 2011.

Michigan, the Big Ten champion, finished 28-9. Nik Stauskas led the Wolverines with 24 points.

A basketball axiom came to mind at halftime: Don't lose the game in the first half.

Thanks to a breakout performance by Lee, Kentucky managed to stay in the game. His five baskets (which equaled the number he'd scored since Nov. 25) steadied the Cats. He got the call because of Cauley-Stein's injury and starting center Dakari Johnson's early struggles (a walk in the post and getting stripped on another chance inside the first three minutes).

Three putback dunks by Lee in less than two minutes nullified Michigan's early 9-2 lead. That two-minute burst equaled the three baskets the freshman from Antioch, Calif., had scored since Jan. 8.

Julius Randle, who scored only one basket in the first 19 minutes-plus, tied it 37-37 with three seconds left on a short baseline pop.

Kentucky took its first lead with 18:47 left. Fittingly, a put-back (by Randle) put the Cats ahead 39-37.

The lead grew to as much as 45-39 on another second-chance opportunity (this time by Alex Poythress) with 17:17 left. It was part of UK's 35-24 rebound advantage.

With the game tied 55-55, Aaron Harrison hit his first shot. His three-pointer with 8:05 left put the Cats ahead 58-55. A driving banker by Andrew Harrison with the shot clock inside 10 seconds put Kentucky ahead 62-55, prompting a Michigan timeout at the 6:24 mark and setting the stage for a memorable finish.

Jordan Morgan's put-back tied it 72-72 with 31.6 seconds left.

In a timeout, Kentucky planned for Aaron Harrison to get the ball, drive and create.

"Give Aaron the ball," said twin brother Andrew Harrison, who did just that. "Yes, sir. You don't have to tell me twice."

Michigan plotted to prevent Aaron Harrison or any of his teammates to use Kentucky's signature offensive strategy: a drive to the basket.

"We were going to make sure they did not get downhill," Michigan Coach John Beilein said.

LeVert, who kept close to Aaron Harrison, described the strategy as, "Switch every screen. We switched them. Make them shoot a contested shot. We made them do that. They just hit the shot."

Rather than drive, Harrison rose about 25 feet from the basket and swished the shot.

"I don't know if that was the best shot selection in the world," Jarrod Polson said. "They were playing really good defense. Aaron hit big shot after big shot. I knew when it was coming out of his hand, it has a chance to go in.

"Aaron just did his thing, and it worked out. Huge guts. He's one of the 'clutch-est' players I've played with."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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