Another game-winner from Aaron Harrison puts Kentucky in title game
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Aaron Harrison stood in the usual spot: behind the three-point arc late in an NCAA tournament game, basketball in hand, outcome undecided. His face was not the picture of concentration. In fact, he smiled. Or at least smirked.
Harrison earned such hubris in recent weeks, one three-point game-winner at a time, as he lifted Kentucky from its status as this season's biggest disappointment to the national championship game against Connecticut on Monday night. As the clocked ticked under 10 seconds Saturday, as Wisconsin tried to stop exactly what would happen, Harrison's teammates eyed him from the bench. "I'm like, why is he smiling?" forward Marcus Lee said. "I'm like, he's going to do it again."
Like against Michigan in the Elite Eight. Like against Louisville in the Sweet 16. Aaron Harrison is to game-changing NCAA tournament three-pointers as Ferrari is to car engines. Harrison did not invent the concept. He just perfected it.
His latest put Kentucky ahead, 74-73, and that lead stood when Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson bounced the game's final shot attempt off the rim. AT&T Stadium all but exploded. Kentucky had done it again.
"I knew he was going to make it," guard James Young.
Should the Wildcats top the Huskies on Monday night, Kentucky's 2014 NCAA tournament run should be placed among the greatest of all time, however you feel about John Calipari and the way he runs his program. Here was a team that did not stumble down the stretch so much as it face-planted. Here were five freshmen starters humbled. Here was a tournament draw so brutal NBA teams might have complained -- but not Kentucky, which more and more resembles one.
In this tournament, the Wildcats dispatched Wichita State, an undefeated No. 1 seed. They toppled rival Louisville, then Michigan, then Wisconsin. That's four teams considered title contenders, in a row, each game close until the end.
We spend so much time talking about how young Kentucky is. We should spend more time talking about how good Kentucky is, how good Kentucky has been the past three weeks.
The Wildcats finished with four turnovers on Saturday; none committed in the final 24 minutes and 29 seconds. They won their fourth-straight game by five points or fewer. Their freshmen scored 66 points, a Final Four single-game record. Youth, smouth. If this was about freshmen, it was also about poise and skill and college basketball's new marksman -- with Harrison the single most predictable thing in this most unpredictable tournament.
Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker opened the second half with a three-pointer, and Calipari called a quick timeout. Again there came the freshmen, so many freshmen, Kentucky's latest and perhaps greatest crop of future NBA exports.
Julius Randle, playing so close to his hometown, his grandmother watching him play in person in college for the first time, dropped a baby hook. Young windmilled in a layup. Center Dakari Johnson muscled into position for an offensive rebound and a putback. Lee slammed home a lob.
The Wildcats seized control of the game behind what became a 15-0 run. Freshman accounted for 13 of those points.
By then, Kentucky had opened up a 51-43 advantage. Calipari said he saw that and said, "OK," and then he looked up minutes later and the game was tied. Wisconsin crept back in.
Aaron's twin, Andrew Harrison, missed two crucial shots for Kentucky in the final minutes. Jackson also leaned into him and drew a foul with 16.4 seconds left. Jackson took three free throws. He missed the first, made the second and the third rattled around the rim and in. The Badgers led, 73-71.
If Wisconsin did not expect Aaron Harrison to hoist the final shot, it should have. In the huddle, Calipari told Andrew Harrison to look for a layup, then Johnson, then, "If not," Calipari told him, "you got your brother." Andrew dribbled beneath the basket along the baseline. No layup. He passed inside to Johnson, who passed it back. It seemed like no one wanted to take the final shot, and then the craziest thing happened. There stood Aaron Harrison, in the usual spot, and he was open. His brother tossed him the ball. He smiled. Or smirked. He lofted another three-pointer. With 5.7 seconds left, it went in. Of course it went in. That left Wisconsin with the final shot, and Jackson got a good look. He missed.
In Kentucky's locker room, Randle tried to explain the sequence to reporters, finishing by saying it "was crazy." He finished the game with 16 points and 5 rebounds. That he could explain. Harrison? "It was crazy," Randle said again.
Lee tried. Someone asked him for an Aaron Harrison summary in the locker room. He paused. "Really?" he asked. "That's impossible." He shrugged. He smiled. "Aaron? I don't know."
The person who seemed the least impressed with Aaron Harrison was, well, Aaron Harrison. His teammates said he possessed a "clutch gene." So did his opponents. Calipari noted the distance of the latest game-winner, from NBA three-point range. "I don't know about the clutch gene thing," Harrison said, nonplussed. "I just like winning. If that's what I have to do to win, that's what I have to do."
Speaking of, here is Kentucky, a team among the most polarizing in college basketball, and its coach, mostly loved or hated, capable of inspiring younger players and a fan base among the most passionate in college basketball but not ambivalence. Monday will mark Calipari's second title game appearance in the past three seasons. If he were better liked, the next few days would see him placed in historical context. Instead, we center on his one-and-done approach. "I think he's misunderstood," Kentucky's athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, said earlier this week. "In all sports, there are people who walk around with the white hat on, and sometimes there are folks that don't."
Calipari does not walk around with a white hat on, and maybe he does not care. The NCAA made this system, Barnhart noted, and Calipari adapted to it and thrived within it. His players may be one, as in expected total of collegiate seasons, but they are not done. Not yet. Not until Monday night, when the Wildcats face the Huskies in the national championship, a contest between an eighth seed and a seventh seed, a matchup as unlikely three weeks ago as the games that got them there.
Fittingly, the most consistent element the past three weeks is Aaron Harrison. A freshman. A freshman from Kentucky. A freshman on the brink of a championship.