Mark Story: 'Frank the Tank' no match for Kentucky's big-man quartet

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 6, 2014 

  • NCAA championship game

    Kentucky (29-10) vs. Connecticut (31-8)

    When: 9:10 p.m. Monday (CBS)

    Where: Arlington, Texas

ARLINGTON, Texas — Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky was the breakout star of the NCAA Tournament West Region.

The 7-foot center with guard skills demolished a talented Arizona front line to the tune of 28 points — 20 after halftime — and 11 rebounds in the Badgers' 64-63 overtime victory that brought Wisconsin to the Final Four.

When Arizona's Wildcats put a big man on him, Kaminsky moved outside and hit three-point shots. When 'Zona went with a smaller defender, "Frank the Tank" moved inside.

Once it became apparent that an ankle injury would keep Kentucky's shot-blocking Willie Cauley-Stein from playing against Wisconsin, it seemed Kaminsky could pose the same kind of threat to a different breed of Wildcats.

Instead, UK's stout interior defense by committee helped take down Kaminsky and the Badgers.

Aaron Harrison drained yet another game-winning three-pointer, this one from the left wing with 5.7 seconds left, and UK (29-10) advanced to the 12th NCAA championship game in school history with a heart-stopping 74-73 victory over the plucky Badgers (30-8).

For Harrison, who hit the go-ahead basket inside the final minute against Louisville in the round of 16 and the game winner in the final seconds in Kentucky's round-of-eight win over Michigan, it was the only three-pointer he made against the Badgers.

"I didn't play that good a game," he said. "But I hit a big shot."

UK's victory was not secure until an open 15-footer by Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson bounded off the back rim.

That sent the Big Blue partisans in an AT&T Stadium crowd of 79,444 — the largest ever to see a Division I men's basketball game — into delirium.

With the win, Kentucky will face Connecticut. The Huskies (31-8) ended the 30-game winning streak of No. 1 overall seed Florida in Saturday's first game with a 63-53 win. It will be the first time that two teams who failed to play in the NCAA Tournament the prior season have met in a national title game since 1966, when it was Texas Western and UK.

A big part of Kentucky's victory Saturday night was its defense on Kaminsky.

In two games in the West Region rounds of 16 and eight, Kaminsky averaged 23.5 points a game and 7.5 rebounds. Harried by UK's rotating big men of starters Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle and backups Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, Kaminsky only got seven shots at the goal.

He made four and finished with eight points and five rebounds.

"I thought Dakari could play him some, put that big body on him," Calipari said. "Then we wanted all kinds of other people to guard him."

With the 7-foot, 265-pound Johnson pounding Kaminsky physically under the bucket, Kentucky was also aggressively double-teaming him in the post when passes entered. It seemed to keep the Lisle, Ill., product from ever getting comfortable offensively.

Poythress, the 6-8, 239-pound sophomore, and Randle, a 6-9, 250-pound freshman, also took turns guarding Kaminsky.

So heavy was UK's concentration on Kaminsky early in the game, he finished the first half with only two points. However, Wisconsin still led 40-36 because the defensive focus on Kaminsky opened things up for Sam Dekker (12 first-half points), Bronson Koenig (11) and Ben Brust (10).

In half two, Kaminsky scored on a nice spin move to put the Badgers ahead 64-60 with 8:36 left.

He did the same thing, driving and scoring on a shot that Poythress goaltended to make the Wisconsin lead 69-65 with 5:05 left.

Kaminsky also scored the Badgers' final field goal, a putback with 1:16 remaining that tied the score at 71.

However, in a game where the conventional wisdom was that the Wisconsin big man had to turn in a stellar performance for his team to win, the Kentucky defense did not allow that to happen.

That set up Aaron Harrison for yet another round of late-game heroics.

At the end of as exhilarating a tournament run as I can ever remember a team going on, all that now stands between UK and its second national title in three seasons is UConn.

A season ago, when Kentucky collapsed into the NIT, Connecticut was banned from post-season play at all due to low Academic Progress Rates in its men's basketball program.

Now, two schools that watched the Big Dance in 2013, will face off to decide who takes home the big trophy in 2014. It will be a rematch of the 2011 national semifinals, when Connecticut won 56-55 in Houston.

For the Cats, a big reason why they are in this position was a defensive effort that made "Frank the Tank" seem about as lethal as a jeep.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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