ARLINGTON, Texas — With a spot in the NCAA championship game at stake, the University of Kentucky’s freshman starters had battled No. 2 University of Wisconsin from behind nearly all night. But needing two points to force overtime after a furious second-half rally, there was no question which Wildcat would get the ball.
With 5.7 seconds left, Kentucky put the ball in the hands of Aaron Harrison, half of the team’s 6-foot-6 twin back court. And once again, he defined the meaning of clutch, sinking a three-pointer — his lone three-point shot of the game — to win it.
After Wisconsin’s last-second heave bounced away, the Wildcats stormed into Monday’s championship game with a 74-73 victory to set up a showdown of the lowest-seeded finalists in NCAA tournament history.
The matchup: No. 7 Connecticut, which toppled Florida earlier, against No. 8 Kentucky.
It was the third consecutive game that Aaron Harrison salvaged for the Wildcats, replicating almost precisely his buzzer-beater against Michigan in the Midwest Region final.
“Coach [John Calipari] said he wanted me to take the shot,” Aaron Harrison said. “That gave me a lot of confidence. My teammates had confidence in me; I just fed off that.
“We fight so hard and are so resilient,” he said over the stadium’s public-address system, but the roar of Kentucky fans drowned out the rest.
With his shot, Harrison put Kentucky (29-10) one victory away from its second NCAA title in the last three years, this one with a wholly restocked starting lineup of high-scoring phenoms. And he snuffed out the best chance Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has had of adding a Division I tournament title to a résumé that includes four championships with Division III Wisconsin-Platteville.
“Guys that make game-winners are not afraid to miss them,” Calipari said of Harrison. “And he’s not afraid to miss. They have amnesia from play-to-play.”
Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker, who scored 15 points, lauded Harrison’s heroics. “It was a great shot. Aaron has been doing that all tournament. He has got that clutch gene.”
The Badgers (30-8) led by nine points in the first half and took a 40-36 lead to the break. They also weathered an 11-0 run by Kentucky in the second half that would have gutted most teams.
But Wisconsin was undone by uncharacteristic turnovers down the stretch and Kentucky’s height and power. The Wildcats dominated the paint, outscoring Wisconsin 46-24 from close range; beat Wisconsin on the boards, 32-27; and feasted on second-chance points. Kentucky also committed just four turnovers, none in the second half.
While it seemed in the early going that Ryan’s squad of veterans would prove that experience trumps talent in college basketball, John Calipari’s star-studded freshmen proved the opposite — at least on this night.
Kentucky was led by James Young’s 17 points, with Julius Randle adding 16 and Dakari Johnson 10. While the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, managed a combined 17 points, no shot was bigger than Aaron’s lone three-pointer.
The Wildcats were the story of college basketball when the season opened. Stocked with the most coveted recruiting class in memory, they were tabbed as the preseason No. 1 team. But all that talent worked at cross-purposes in the early going. It was only down the stretch that it translated into a team.
The Wildcats stormed into the Final Four (Calipari’s third Final Four in his five seasons at Kentucky) by vanquishing three-fourths of last year’s Final Four lineup: Wichita State University, the University of Louisville and University of Michigan in succession. But Wisconsin tested them mightily.
Wisconsin went ahead 34-25 with 4 minutes 13 seconds remaining in the first half, but allowed Kentucky to pare its deficit in the waning minutes.
Calipari’s patience snapped 59 seconds into the first half when his players let Wisconsin keep a possession alive with until Dekker finally sank a shot on the Badgers’ third crack at the rim. It was their last lax sequence.
Kentucky’s Johnson grabbed his own rebound put Kentucky ahead, 45-43. Then came a wildly athletic tip-in by Alex Poythress, who flew in from the wing to salvage an out of control air ball.
Kentucky’s rally was on, at a tempo to its liking.
The Badgers steadied themselves to claw back with three-pointers and free throws. Duje Dukan hit a second three-pointer to reclaim the Badgers’ lead. The teams traded baskets from there, with Wisconsin hitting from long range and Kentucky holding sway in the paint.
Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, largely muzzled to that point, finally drove to the basket and, with a crafty spin move, laid it in.
An errant pass by Ben Brust resulted in a second consecutive Wisconsin turnover. This time, the Wildcats took advantage, with Poythress flying in for the dunk on a lob pass from Andrew Harrison.
Kaminsky’s putback tied it at 71 with just one minute to play.
With a golden chance to pull ahead, Traevon Jackson heaved up a desperate shot with his left hand but was fouled by Andrew Harrison with 16.4 seconds remaining. He made two of his three attempts.
And once again, Aaron Harrison hit the shot Kentucky needed most.