CLEVELAND — Kentucky's dream of the perfect season was out of its hands.
As the Quicken Loans Arena game clock ticked inside 40 seconds in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region finals, UK and Notre Dame were tied at 66. A crowd of 19,464 that included LeBron James, Ashley Judd and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was on its feet.
The game was in the hands of Notre Dame star Jerian Grant.
The 6-foot-5 senior, a finalist for the Wooden Award as the best men's college basketball player in the country, went to his go-to move.
Using the ball to feign as if he were going to drive hard, Grant instead stepped back to clear space for a jump shot.
With a berth in the Final Four possibly hanging in the balance, Grant unleashed a 17-foot jumper.
Off his hand, it looked good.
Except it never got to the basket.
Willie Cauley-Stein uncoiled every bit of his 7-foot frame and all of his abundant leaping ability.
"I had no idea that I was even that close to him to block it," Cauley-Stein said.
Yet the top of the Kentucky big man's finger tips grazed the basketball.
The ball spun harmlessly out of bounds.
Soon, Andrew Harrison drained two cold-blooded free throws with seconds left. Cauley-Stein harried Grant into a wild, desperation three at the buzzer that didn't come close and the Cats had defeated the Fighting Irish 68-66 to go 38-0.
Now, UK is headed to its 17th Final Four — and fourth in the past five years.
"Our guys, I know they have the will to win," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. "Our guys made plays."
In Saturday's national semifinals, UK will face Wisconsin (35-3) in a rematch of the one-point thriller the Wildcats won over the Badgers in last season's Final Four.
If Kentucky goes on to complete the first undefeated national championship season since Indiana in 1976, Cauley-Stein's finger-tip block of Grant's go-ahead jumper will live forever in UK basketball lore.
"It's crazy," Cauley-Stein said. "His step-back is probably one of the fastest step-backs I've ever guarded. He knows how to set you up for it."
For most of the second half, Notre Dame seemed to have Kentucky set up for a crushing, season-ending upset.
Repeatedly burning UK with backdoor cuts and off-side pick-and-rolls, the Irish built a six-point lead, 59-53, on a Steve Vasturia three-pointer with 6:14 left.
Yet, just as it did when trailing late in difficult games at LSU and Georgia, Kentucky dug deep and fought back.
"I knew," Cauley-Stein said, "that if we could just get it back tied, we'd win it. It's what we do."
Behind the low-post scoring of Karl-Anthony Towns (25 points) and clutch three-pointers from Tyler Ulis and Aaron Harrison Kentucky clawed back.
A Towns turnaround in the lane tied the game at 66 with 1:10 left.
That put the game — and each team's season — into the hands of Grant.
And, as it turned out, onto the finger tips of Cauley-Stein — a 7-footer with a guard's athleticism.
Could any other player in the country have made the block on Grant's jumper that Cauley-Stein did?
"I don't know," Kentucky forward Marcus Lee said. "(Grant) kept doing his step-back. I guess Willie kind of figured it out and got the timing right."
Said UK point guard Ulis: "No other player in the country (could have made the play). The Grant kid, he's a really good player. He was beating us off the dribble a lot. But Willie read it perfectly and blocked the shot. It was the biggest play of the game, actually."
Afterward, Mike Brey, the Notre Dame coach, made a statement that seemingly all the other head men to face Kentucky had already made.
Eventually, UK's size and athleticism gets to you.
"Certainly we were able to get some things tonight," Brey said. "But the size does get to you, over 40 minutes it can take its toll on you and I thought the defensive possessions, as good as Jerian was getting us there, getting us a couple-possession lead, it kind of swallowed him a little bit a couple times."
On the game's biggest play, Notre Dame put the ball in Jerian Grant's hands.
By his finger tips, Willie Cauley-Stein snuffed out the play.
And sent Kentucky to the Final Four.