Kentucky freshmen, freed to have fun, bounce into the Final Four

Monday March 31st, 2014

Aaron Harrison's Kentucky teammates mobbed him after he hit the game-winner against Michigan.
David E. Klutho/SI

INDIANAPOLIS -- The stadium operations carts waited outside the locker room for the Kentucky Wildcats, ready to roll down a long hallway to the team bus. Alex Poythress emerged from the postgame meal, grinning and holding a Styrofoam container. He sat next to the driver and playfully asked what she was doing Sunday night. Moments later, a cart carrying the Harrison twins pulled alongside another carrying fellow freshman James Young. Young, shimmying his shoulders, suggested a race. A fragment of net hanging from his grey championship hat wiggled along.

They're still kids. Remember that when the Wildcats continue their hunt for a national title at the Final Four on Saturday. They know where they came from but are feeling a bit invincible again, like this won't end until they get what they want. They have played two or three Final Four games already anyway, including the one that earned them the spot in North Texas, a 75-72 win over Michigan at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sunday. After it, multiple Kentucky players were splayed on the locker room floor, elated and exhausted by what they'd done

They beat then-unbeaten Wichita State. They beat their visceral rival, Louisville. And they beat Michigan on a contested three-pointer from Aaron Harrison with four seconds to play. Somehow a football stadium contained the explosion of voices that followed. Kentucky's full roster buried Harrison under a mound of bodies at the horn -- even injured center Willie Cauley-Stein ditched crutches to hobble-jog into the pile -- in a scene of distilled joy. The Wildcats went from 40-0 T-shirts to face down in the bluegrass to this. They're a roaring colossus reborn.

"We proved a lot to the world, even to ourselves," Aaron Harrison said. "There's ups and downs. It's not going to be smooth sailing. We didn't go 40-0 -- that doesn't mean we're not a good team. We just kept fighting, and if you keep fighting, you don't know what can happen. We could have easily laid it down and called it a season. But we didn't want to do that. We didn't want to end the season that way. We just wanted to prove something."

The Wildcats had already proved so much that beating Michigan wasn't necessarily a surprise, despite the fact that the Wolverines were a No. 2 seed and the regular season Big Ten champion. But how Kentucky did it was surprising.

The Wildcats overcame a double-digit first-half deficit and Julius Randle missing five of his first six shots. He went on to hit six of his last 10 to finish with 16 points and 11 boards. Aaron Harrison battled foul trouble all game before hitting three three-pointers in the last four-plus minutes, including the game-winner. And freshman Marcus Lee, nudged into the rotation because of Cauley-Stein's ankle injury, injected energy with a 10-point, eight-rebound, two-block night.

Lee played 15 minutes Sunday. He had not recorded double-digit minutes since Jan. 14. He hit five shots Sunday. The 6-foot-9 forward hit four, total, during SEC play. Lee had "sleepwalked" through practices lately, according to guard Andrew Harrison. But it's Kentucky, so there was a legend behind this, too, extracted by coach John Calipari.

"Tell them what I told you for two days before this game," Calipari said.

"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Lee replied. "Knowing us, none of us believed him."

"And everyone in the world would be talking about you, is what I said," Calipari added.

Calipari was mostly right. But only mostly. Everyone in the world will be talking about Aaron Harrison's shot at least until the Wisconsin game Saturday.

WATCH: Aaron Harrison's three-pointer sends Kentucky to Final Four

Michigan had tied the game on a frenzied possession, missing three shots and collecting three offensive rebounds before finally scrambling to a Jordan Morgan tip-in and a 72-72 tie with 27 seconds left. Kentucky advanced the ball, and the Wolverines gave a foul with 10 seconds to play. Out of the ensuing timeout, the Wildcats called for "Pistol," in which Andrew Harrison would execute a dribble-handoff to his twin brother, who then very simply would look for a shot.

Michigan begged for a timeout before the inbounds pass to reorganize what Calipari had drawn up, but the Wolverines got what they wanted anyway: They would switch every screen and happily agree to Kentucky hoisting a long, contested three-pointer instead of bull-rushing into the lane. And Aaron Harrison did indeed hoist a long, contested three-pointer, his hand even hit as he released it, and he fell to the floor as the ball fell through the net. "Shake his hand," Michigan assistant LaVall Jordan said. "If that's the shot you make to go, you deserve to go."

Once on his feet, Aaron Harrison stood straight, face blank, girded for the contact of incoming teammates.

"That was probably the biggest shot he ever hit," Andrew Harrison said. "My mouth was just open. I couldn't even chase after him, I was so dazed."

"It's the best feeling in the world," Aaron Harrison said. "I know even if I did have a bad game like I did today, big shots are big shots. And I like to take big shots."

Once a last-ditch heave from Michigan's Nik Stauskas went far right, the mob ruled. Aaron Harrison was soon on his back below a six-deep pile of sweaty Wildcats. "I thought I was going to get broken in half," he said. "It was kind of painful." Senior Jarrod Polson tried to pull his teammates off the pile, the only moment anyone was fearful Harrison might choke on Sunday.

And then it was off to hold a trophy aloft on the dais. It was in Aaron Harrison's hands to begin with, and he lifted it above his head, before bringing it down and asking someone else to take it. Jon Hood, a fifth-year senior and former top-40 recruit who came in with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and has watched all the one-and-dones come and go, fought his way to the front and snatched it into his chest. Hood held it as he snipped a piece of net for himself, and he cradled it in his right arm some 45 minutes later in the locker room. "I'm the oldest guy on the team," Hood said. "Ain't nobody taking this from me."

Nobody is taking anything away from Kentucky anymore, to the point where Hood was asked how this team compared to the last Final Four club of 2012.

"In 2012, we won a national title," Hood said. "We got a ways to go for that."

Not as far as anyone expected. In a woeful loss at South Carolina just 29 days earlier, Calipari was ejected, and Kentucky shot less than 27 percent from the floor while falling to 21-8 overall. After that game, Aaron Harrison insisted the Wildcats hadn't reached the end. He said his team would have a good story to tell. Since, Kentucky has lost just twice, both times to No. 1 Florida. On Sunday, it stormed into its third Final Four in four seasons.

Afterward, Calipari invoked again how these touted freshmen finally lost themselves in the team, how they began to have more fun, to become more confident. "All of a sudden," the Wildcats coach said, "this is what you have."

All of a sudden, the kids of Kentucky are coming for a national title.

"It's a great story," Harrison said, and no one can doubt that now.

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