Kentucky escapes Notre Dame to stay perfect, reach Final Four again
Kentucky is still undefeated.
The Wildcats moved to 38-0 by overcoming overcame a huge challenge from Notre Dame on Saturday in the Midwest Regional final in Cleveland, winning 68-66 to reach the Final Four for the fourth time in five years.
With the score tied at 66 and the clock winding down, Kentucky sophomore guard Andrew Harrison drove down the lane and drew a blocking foul. He made both free throws and the Wildcats then double-teamed Fighting Irish star Jerian Grant as he raced up the court. Grant's desperation three-pointer from the corner missed everything, sending Kentucky to Indianapolis.
That had seemed like a foregone conclusion all year, especially after the top-seeded Wildcats trounced West Virginia 78-39 on Thursday in the Sweet 16, but third-seeded Notre Dame played with a combination of talent and tenacity that Kentucky had arguably not faced all season.
The Irish were almost 11-point underdogs, but it was clear from the beginning that this game would be closer than that. The two teams traded the lead back and forth throughout the first half before and neither team led by more than three in the opening 20 minutes. A putback by the Wildcats' Trey Lyles shortly before the buzzer sent the teams into the break tied at 31.
Kentucky jumped to a five-point lead at 38-33 two minutes into the second half, but Notre Dame made it clear it would not go away, retaking the lead at 41-40 on a Zach Auguste dunk and going up by four on a dunk by Pat Connaughton at the 14:26 mark. The Irish pushed their lead to six with 6:16 to go on a three-pointer by Steve Vasturia, but then it was Kentucky's turn to respond.
Just like during last year's run to the national title game, it was the Harrison twins who were the heroes late. A dunk by Aaron Harrison–who made game-winning threes in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four games last season—started the rally, and his three-pointer with 3:18 remaining put the Wildcats up by one. But with the shot clock about to hit zero on the next possession, Grant stole the lead right back for the Irish with his own shot from deep.
After a turnover by Aaron Harrison, Notre Dame had a 66-64 advantage and the ball with less than two minutes to go. But the Wildcats, the nation's stingiest defensive team, got a critical stop, and Karl-Anthony Towns tied the score with a jumper in the lane. UK's Willie Cauley-Stein blocked a three from Grant on the other end and the ball went out of bounds to Notre Dame with one second remaining on the shot clock and :38 seconds left on the game clock. The Irish turned it over, giving Kentucky the ball back, setting up the tense finish.
The 6'11" Towns, one of the Wildcats' stellar freshmen, had a game-high 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting, plus five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. Auguste led Notre Dame with 20 points, also on 10-for-13 shooting, and nine rebounds. Kentucky shot 53.2% from the field and 4-for-8 from three-point range while committing 11 turnovers. The Irish made 46.4% from the field and had just seven turnovers but only hit 4-of-14 from outside. The Wildcats held a considerable size advantage, yet Notre Dame grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and had only one rebound less than Kentucky on the night.
Cauley-Stein was relatively quiet on offense with six points, but he and fellow 7-footer Dakari Johnson were menaces on defense with five combined blocks.
Kentucky will face Wisconsin on Saturday in a national semifinal, a rematch of last year's game in the same round in North Texas won by the Wildcats, who then lost to Connecticut in the final. Earlier on Saturday, the Badgers took down Arizona for the second straight year to win the West Regional.