CLEVELAND — Kentucky experienced the survive part of the NCAA Tournament's survive-and-advance ethos Saturday.
Kentucky's season didn't end in the Elite Eight thriller against Notre Dame. But the Cats could see the end before winning 68-66.
"I was so happy the game was over," Tyler Ulis said of his immediate reaction. "It was just, like, relief. Everything is over and we can move on from this game."
Having extracted themselves from Notre Dame, Kentucky advanced to its fourth Final Four in five years. That marked another bit of history in a season filled with them. No span in UK basketball history had been so filled with Final Fours. The Fabulous Five-Hagan/Ramsey era made it three times in four years (1948-51). The Cats led by Rick Pitino-Tubby Smith did it four times in six years (1993-98).
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Kentucky (38-0) will play Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis. The winner will play for the national title 48 hours later.
Notre Dame (32-6) put that in serious jeopardy.
Kentucky, which had trailed after halftime only seven previous times this season (and then for a total of 31 minutes and one second), played uphill much of the second half.
"Not fun at all," Ulis said.
The Cats trailed for almost 12 minutes: From the 14:55 mark until Mr. Clutch, Aaron Harrison, hit a three-pointer with 3:14 left. That shot — called from the bench and of NBA length — put the Cats ahead 64-63.
After a Notre Dame time out, Jerian Grant made perhaps an even longer three-pointer to put the Irish ahead 66-64 with 2:33 left.
UK, which had two consecutive stops only twice in the second half, got one when Grant missed a semi-desperate three-point heave.
Karl-Anthony Towns, who was playing only offense in a defense/offense substitution pattern with Dakari Johnson, tied it on a post-up with 1:12 left. He led UK with a career-high 25 points.
Following its customary strategy, Notre Dame did not double-team Towns, or any UK player in the post, which puzzled Willie Cauley-Stein.
"I don't know why you would do that," said Cauley-Stein, who smiled as he added, "Karl (chuckle) is the best in the country. You can give it to him, get out of his way, and he'll find a way to get it in the basket.
"By them not doubling or doing anything, it blew my mind."
Cauley-Stein tipped another desperation three by Grant. The loose ball went out of bounds. After a check of a sideline monitor, one second was put on the shot clock. Notre Dame could not get a shot off, leaving UK with 33.6 seconds to take the lead.
"Just put my finger tip on it," Cauley-Stein said of the block. " ... I felt like if I didn't block it, it was going in. Just the way the kid (Grant) is. The dude is nice."
UK did not go to Towns nor Aaron Harrison for the go-ahead points. Instead, Andrew Harrison drove. Demetrius Jackson tried to draw a charge, but was called for blocking. Andrew Harrison's two free throws with six seconds left put UK ahead.
Grant, Notre Dame's best player, got off a heavily contested three-pointer from the left corner. It never found the rim.
The game was competitive from start to finish.
A tip-in by Trey Lyles at the buzzer tied the halftime score at 31. That put-back enabled Kentucky to avoid its first halftime deficit in almost two months (the Cats trailed 30-28 at Florida on Feb. 7).
The teams played evenly through the first 20 minutes. The biggest lead was 26-22 by Notre Dame with 2:42 left.
A fitting score by Bonzie Colson established that four-point margin. He cut to the basket, took a pass and scored on a layup. On several occasions, the Irish beat UK defenders on cuts to the basket, a reason Kentucky was outscored in the paint 20-18 in the half.
Kentucky was intent on going inside on offense. Towns, Cauley-Stein and Lyles scored 19 of UK's 31 points.
The inside attack also got UK to the foul line. The Cats made 10 of 12 free throws. Notre Dame, which had made more free throws (551) than its opponents had attempted (513), did not get to the line until Grant shot a free throw with 5:05 left in the half. The last of Notre Dame's four first-half free throws established a 28-27 lead with 1:34 left.
Colson's three-point drive put the Irish ahead 31-29 with 25.4 seconds left.
Kentucky held for a final shot. Andrew Harrison missed, but Lyles' tip-in tied it.
Kentucky took the initiative to start the second half. Post-ups by Towns sandwiched around a Devin Booker three-pointer put the Cats ahead 38-33 with 18:07 left. That was UK's largest lead yet.
An emphatic dunk by Auguste capped an 8-2 Irish spurt. That put Kentucky behind 41-40, marking UK's first second-half deficit since the game at Georgia in the final week of the regular season.
Plays at both ends of the floor by Pat Connaughton increased the deficit to 46-42. He rebounded a Booker three-point miss, then drove through a broken floor for a rousing dunk.
That prompted a Kentucky timeout with 14:24 left.
Notre Dame maintained a lead despite momentum plays by UK. Lyles beat Auguste to a missed Kentucky free throw and scored. That reduced the deficit to 50-48 with 9:47 left.
Steve Vasturia hit a three-pointer as the trailer in transition to give Notre Dame its largest lead yet, at 59-53. After a UK timeout, Ulis hit a three-pointer from the right corner.
Notre Dame answered with cool precision. The Irish got the ball to Auguste, who drove to a layup while being fouled by Towns. The play put Notre Dame ahead 61-56 with 5:22 left. Towns, UK's primary scorer, picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench.
Towns returned for a make-or-break five minutes.
With the Cats down 62-58, Towns posted for a three-point play at the 4:08 mark. That gave him 23 points, which eclipsed his previous career high of 21 points against Hampton in UK's opening NCAA Tournament game.