CLEVELAND — The unbeaten team sure looked beat.
There was 6:10 left in the Midwest Regional finals when undefeated and No. 1 seed Kentucky called a timeout, down six points (59-53) to self-assured, confident No. 3 seed Notre Dame and there was just this feeling inside the Quicken Loans Arena that the Cats' glorious road toward history was coming to a premature end.
And then something changed.
"Desperation," said Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison. "We were afraid we were going to lose."
For the first time in the second half, the best defensive team in the nation got three consecutive defensive stops when it had to have three consecutive stops.
And now Kentucky is in the Final Four.
Just when you thought Kentucky's season was ending at 37-1, the Cats found a way to get it to 38-0 and on to Indianapolis for next weekend's national semifinals thanks to a heart-stopping 68-66 win over the Fighting Irish.
It's the fourth Final Four trip in the six years since John Calipari has come to Kentucky and the Cats will play West Region champ Wisconsin, which defeated Arizona 85-78, on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That's a rematch of last year's Final Four in Arlington, Texas, when Aaron Harrison's late three-pointer gave the Cats a 74-73 win and a berth in the national championship game, which UK lost to UConn.
This time, both twins played hero. Aaron hit a three with 3:14 left to give UK a 64-63 lead. Then it was Andrew who played hero, driving the ball to the basket and picking up a blocking foul from Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson with exactly six seconds remaining and the game tied at 66. The sophomore point guard coolly sank both free throws to give Kentucky the lead.
Out of timeouts, Notre Dame inbounded the ball to fleet guard Jerian Grant, who raced upcourt, tracked every step by UK 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who forced the Notre Dame guard to heave a contested three-pointer that wasn't close.
"What a great college game," said Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey. "It was thrilling to be part of it. It lived up to the hype. We are extremely disappointed. We thought we had a great chance to win it."
You had to wonder if Notre Dame got a little too cute down the stretch, that the Irish milked too much of the clock. Grant threw in a ridiculously deep three-pointer with 2:32 left just at the shot clock buzzer that put the Irish up 66-64, but Notre Dame didn't score again. Three straight empty possessions.
First, Grant missed a jumper from the top of the key as the shot clock was about to go off. Next possession, Cauley-Stein blocked another Grant three-point attempt and Notre Dame ended up with a shot-clock violation.
"Their length shrinks the court and makes it tough to get off shots," Brey said. "And that happened a couple of times late in the game."
It didn't happen much early. Notre Dame's efficient offense frustrated Kentucky early to the point where there was some uncharacteristic squabbling in the huddle during timeouts.
The score was tied 31-31 at the half. And Karl-Anthony Towns kept Kentucky in it, the freshman forward ending up with 25 points, making 10 of 13 shots on the night.
When Irish forward Steve Vasturia buried a three-pointer at the 6:14 mark, Notre Dame led 59-53 and UK was wobbling.
"We were just fighting to stay in the game, to be honest with you," said Calipari afterward.
That fight turned into a win.
"We're definitely not finished," said Aaron Harrison. "We've got a lot left to improve."
As tough as it was Saturday to get through to the Final Four, the Final Four promises to be tougher. Wisconsin has had a whole year to chew on revenge for last year's national semifinal.
"Wow, that's a great matchup," Brey said. "Wisconsin is a little bit like us. They are skilled and can spread you out and they've got a little more bulk. But (Kentucky's) size can get to you over the 40 minutes. As good as Jerian was, it kind of swallowed him a little bit on a couple of possessions."
Just when Kentucky needed it most.
Said Karl-Anthony Towns: "Desperation."