CLEVELAND — Aaron Harrison hit another mammoth three-pointer, Andrew Harrison made the two free throws that sent Kentucky to another Final Four, but without Karl-Anthony Towns, these Wildcats would have been spending next weekend back in Lexington.
Towns scored a career-high 25 points despite being in foul trouble for much of the game. In the second half, he was 8-for-8 from the floor and scored 17 points. Four of those buckets came in the final 8:08, when UK was fighting for its undefeated season and its dreams of an NCAA championship.
The Cats defeated Notre Dame 68-66, and Towns was named the Midwest Regional's Most Outstanding Player.
"He carried us," said Tyler Ulis. "He was getting fouled. All those were and-ones to me, and they didn't call the calls. It tells you how much he's grown as a player. He's fighting through the fouls — not crying like a little baby anymore. He's just getting through it and playing."
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Hold on a second.
Did Ulis really say that Towns — a 7-footer and possible No. 1 pick in this year's NBA Draft — was acting like a "little baby" earlier this season?
"We used to cal him Karl Kardashian," said Andrew Harrison. "He was a little prima donna."
Towns was sitting in his locker, surrounded by reporters and clutching the Midwest Regional trophy when confronted with the nickname.
"Really?!" he said, incredulously. "That's the first time I'm hearing that."
What did Towns make of it?
"I must be famous?" he said.
That's not what they meant, Karl.
Ulis said Coach John Calipari has been on Towns all season about playing tougher, listening more and moving on when things don't go his way.
There was no hint of Karl Kardashian on Saturday night.
He got called for at least a couple of fouls that left room for question. He spent more time on the bench than he would have liked because of the foul trouble.
When he got back on the floor, he continued to fight.
It seemed that every play in the second half went through him. Many of them ended with him posting up Notre Dame big man Zach Auguste, backing him down toward the basket and scoring to keep Kentucky in the game.
Eight shots, eight makes.
"He needed to get a little tougher. Listen a little more," Ulis said. "And he's doing it now. That's what's special about him as a player. Even though he's a great player, he listened, fought through it, and just did what we needed him to do for the team.
"He carried us and made big-time plays."
"Now he's a man," added Harrison, who claimed credit for the "Karl Kardashian" nickname. "Wouldn't have won without him. So glad he's on my team."
UK's starting point guard called Towns the best big man in the country. "No argument. Nothing to talk about it," Harrison said.
Sophomore center Dakari Johnson is the Wildcat who has to go up against Towns every day in practice. Johnson acknowledged that he fouls his teammate quite a bit in those scrimmages, and he also echoed the sentiments of others who said Towns used to let things get to him a little more.
"Maybe early in the season," Johnson said. "Not now though. He was unstoppable today. We were running plays through him, and he was capitalizing off that."
Towns was so hot in the second half that Ulis passed up a wide-open three-point attempt late in the game when the Cats desperately needed as much as they could get. Instead of letting loose with a shot, UK's heady freshman backed it out, set up the offense and got the ball down on the block.
"I knew I needed to feed him first," he said.
Ulis also knew that — as much as the Irish had to concentrate on Towns — he would probably have another good look at a three-pointer down the stretch. He got that look, and he nailed it to pull the Cats within three points of Notre Dame.
The shot by Ulis was a big one. The shot by Aaron Harrison a couple minutes later seemed even bigger. Then there was Willie Cauley-Stein's improbable block of Notre Dame star Jerian Grant. And, finally, Andrew Harrison's two free throws with 6 seconds left to send the Cats to Indianapolis with a 38-0 record.
It wouldn't have been possible without Towns.
"He carried us today," Ulis said. "And that's the reason we won."