The collective hand wringing and nail biting was palpable across the Bluegrass late into Saturday evening as the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame pushed the Kentucky Wildcats to the edge of defeat. UK’s undefeated season and a shot at a national championship were in jeopardy as the Irish were up six with 5:22 remaining. But the Cats were money down the stretch hitting their last nine shots, and Andrew Harrison nailed two free throws with six seconds remaining as Kentucky defeated Notre Dame 68-66.
The Cats advanced to the Final Four in Indianapolis, where they meet Wisconsin on Saturday at 8:49 PM EST, in a rematch of last year’s national semifinal. The Wildcats are 38-0, and are seeking to become the first college basketball undefeated champion in 39 years.
While the game was tied 31-31 at the half, Notre Dame controlled the tempo throughout the game and were never intimidated by Kentucky’s roster of McDonald’s All-Americans and soon-to-be NBA millionaires.
The Cats were bigger at every position, but had trouble utilizing this natural advantage until the second half when Calipari had the ball going inside to Karl-Anthony Towns on nearly every possession. Towns went for 25 points and didn’t miss a shot in the second half.
It’s likely Towns’ performance elevated him above Duke’s Jahlil Okafor as the number one overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
Matching Towns most of the way was Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste, who slammed home 20 points, Steve Vasturia added 16 and star guard Jerian Grant hit for 15.
It took until the middle of the second half for the Irish to begin showing any signs that they were having issues shooting from the perimeter over Kentucky’s height. Notre Dame was not going to go away, so after Willie Cauley-Stein missed a tip-in attempt with 12 minutes, 16 seconds left in the game, Kentucky didn’t miss another field goal attempt.
As Towns and Auguste battled, both picked up their fourth fouls. Calipari opted to sub Towns in when the Cats were on offense and pull him from having to play defense to avoid risking a foul. It was like Tubby Smith-ball all over again and the strategy worked beautifully.
After trailing most of the second half, Kentucky roared back and took a 64-63 lead on Aaron Harrison’s long 3-pointer with 3:14 left. Notre Dame answered right back as Grant hit a monster three of his own to put the Irish up two. Towns tied it up and Notre Dame tried to run as much clock off as possible, but Cauley-Stein blocked Grant’s shot and the Cats got the ball on a shot clock violation. That was the only turnover the Irish had the whole second half. Then Andrew Harrison drove the lane with 6 seconds remaining and picked up a foul.
After Harrison iced the game with his two free throws, Jerian Grant raced down the sideline thinking he could beat Willie Cauley-Stein to the other end. That didn’t happen and his shot never had a chance.
The Irish gave all they had and it was plenty. I imagine those kids woke up Sunday still trying to figure out how they lost that game. It was there to be taken. The Cats didn’t play particularly well, but the Irish missed their last three shot attempts, all jump shots by Grant. That was the only sequence all game where Kentucky was able to get three stops in a row on Notre Dame.
Coincidence? Probably not. The Harrison twins were money all night. Those guys and Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t flinch as time was running out. Nobody on the team showed anything but confidence that they would triumph.
As Calipari said afterwards, these Cats have a will to win.
Kentucky advances to its 17th Final Four and its fourth trip in the past five years. In a repeat of last year’s NCAA national semifinal Kentucky will play the Wisconsin Badgers.
This is going to be a tough game for both teams. Kentucky isn’t going to have its usual height advantage, and they will be the less experienced team.
Josh Gasser, 6’4″ Redshirt Senior Guard; Bronson Koenig, 6’4″ Sophomore Guard; Frank Kaminsky, 7’0″ Senior Forward; Sam Dekker, 6’9″ Junior Forward; and Nigel Hayes, 6’8″ Sophomore Forward.
The Badgers have balanced scoring and a bench. They run a controlled offense, don’t try to be a team they are not and don’t turn the ball over much. Wisconsin also has some experience with the other three squads in the Final Four, having already beat Michigan State twice this year, lost at home to Duke by 10 and lost on a last second shot by Kentucky in last year’s Final Four.
Of course the Kentucky team Wisconsin faced last year did not include the current crop of UK freshmen: Devin Booker, Guard 6’6″ 206; Tres Lyles, Forward 6’10” 235; Karl-Anthony Towns, Forward 6’11” 255; and Tyler Ulis, Guard 5’9″ 155.
Both Lyles and Towns start, and Booker and Ulis play as many minutes as any starter. This is a much taller Kentucky team than what Wisconsin saw last year, more potent and more dynamic.
I like Kentucky in this game with their depth and talent, and Vegas has the Cats as a five point favorite, but Dekker and Kaminsky are NBA prospects and these Badgers make me nervous. I recommend pouring a large bourbon to keep your nerves steady for this one. I’m betting, like in the Notre Dame game, everyone in Big Blue Nation will be fretting together late into Saturday night as we pull for our Wildcats in what is expected to be a close game with Wisconsin.
Don’t worry, these Cats have more work to get done yet and they’ll find a path to victory.