John Clay: Kentucky doing 'what tough teams do'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 30, 2014 

  • final four Game

    Kentucky vs. Wisconsin

    When: 8:49 p.m. Saturday

    Where: Arlington, Texas

    TV: TBS

INDIANAPOLIS — Marcus Lee?

Of course, it was Marcus Lee. In Kentucky basketball's improbable run to the Final Four, it made perfect sense that the star of the game would be a little-used freshman pogo stick from California who provided the Cats with the surprising and incredible lift they needed.

Aaron Harrison again?

Of course, it was Aaron Harrison again. Never mind that there was a Michigan hand in his face, or that he was way beyond the three-point line, or that he already had hit the biggest shot on Friday night. Of course, it was Aaron Harrison again.

And, of course, this Kentucky basketball team that had been doubted and discarded, dissed and derided, seeded eighth by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, is now skipping all the way to the Final Four in Texas thanks to yet another dramatic victory, 75-72 over Michigan in the Midwest Regional finals.

Was there ever any doubt?

"They weren't going away and neither were we," UK Coach John Calipari said afterward. "Whoever had the ball last was going to win it."

If Kentucky did not exactly have the last possession — there were 2.6 seconds left when Aaron Harrison's three-point shot swished the net to break a 72-all tie — the Cats made the most of it.

Friday night, Harrison hit an open three from the left corner for the key shot in the semifinal win.

"It was a tie game for all but two seconds, what else can you do," Michigan center Jordan Morgan said afterward. "He made a big-time shot. They played a great game. They deserved it."

Kentucky deserved it if for no other reason than pulling off one of the greatest turnarounds in college basketball history, going from a pre-season No. 1 to out of the AP Top 25 by season's end to right back up the ladder again.

"We shredded the tapes" of our regular-season games, said senior Jon Hood, sitting in the victorious locker room holding the Midwest Regional championship trophy. "We started over when the SEC Tournament began. And we started over again when we played Kansas State in the first game" of the NCAA Tournament.

They have not stopped. After grinding out a win over Kansas State, they played a classic to knock off No. 2-ranked and previously unbeaten Wichita State. Then Friday night before more than 41,000 people in Lucas Oil Stadium, they played another Cat classic, roaring from behind late to knock off No. 5-ranked and defending national champ Louisville.

If you thought those games couldn't be topped, wrong again. With a Final Four on the line, Calipari's Cats and John Beilein's seventh-ranked Wolverines went toe-to-toe, back-and-forth, up-and-down.

Michigan led 32-22 in the first half. But by the end of the half, Kentucky had tied it at 37.

And much of the comeback had to do with Lee, a freshman who had played the fewest minutes (126) of any McDonald's All-American in the nation, who replaced Cauley-Stein (injured ankle) as the first big off the bench and scored 10 points and grabbed four rebounds in nine minutes

"I actually didn't," said Lee when asked if he thought he would have a tournament moment like this. "I was just trying to do my part to help my team win. And throughout our practices and our shoot-arounds, I just got more confident because my team got more confident in me."

Second half, Kentucky jumped in front 45-39. Michigan roared back to take a 55-51 lead. Kentucky led 62-55. Michigan cut it to 62-61 with 4:47 remaining.

"Is this a great game or what?" blurted Dan Dakich, the ESPN analyst and Indianapolis radio host, whose son Andrew plays for the Wolverines. "Are you guys getting paid to watch this? Come on."

When Morgan's tip-in tied it at 72, Kentucky called timeout with 27 seconds left. Calipari joked afterward that the play he drew up was deceptively simple: "Aaron, just step back and shoot a deep three. They won't guard you."

Michigan did guard him — "I thought it was a pretty good contest," Michigan's Caris LeVert said later. "It seemed pretty far." — and, of course, it didn't really matter one bit.

"I knew it was a big shot, but I didn't expect to get that feeling I got when it dropped," said Harrison, a piece of nylon from the net threaded through the opening of the hat he was wearing backward. "All our tournament games have been tough games against tough teams, and we've found a way to pull through. That's what tough teams do."

Was there ever any doubt?

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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