With less than five seconds remaining in Sunday's Midwest Regional final between Kentucky and Michigan and the score knotted at 72, Wildcats freshman guard Aaron Harrison executed a crisp crossover dribble, stepped back and shot his team into the Final Four. His three-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining was the deciding basket in a tense, 75-72 Kentucky win that will go down as one of the wildest and most thrilling games of this NCAA tournament.
After Nik Stauskas's desperation three at the buzzer missed, Harrison turned, raised his arms high above his head and ran toward his teammates to celebrate. It was another exhilarating moment for the Wildcats, who have undergone a miraculous turnaround and emerged as one of the last teams still in contention for the national championship. Kentucky, led by its five freshman starters, is now off to its third Final Four in the past four seasons.
Though UK incurred a number of bad losses during conference play – including at home against Arkansas and at South Carolina -- it has played its best basketball of the season in the tourney. After beating Kansas State in the round of 64 and No. 1 seed Wichita State in the round of 32, John Calipari's team upset in-state rival Louisville in the Sweet 16. Anything less than another great effort Sunday could well have brought about the end of the Wildcats' postseason run.
In its two most recent games, against Texas and Tennessee, Michigan was able to overcome matchup issues in the frontcourt. The Wolverines appeared to get a reprieve on Sunday, as Kentucky’s best rim protector, Willie Cauley-Stein, sat out with an ankle injury. However, the Wolverines' frontcourt of Glenn Robinson III (6-foot-6), Jordan Morgan (6-8) and Jon Horford (6-10) was nonetheless at a size disadvantage matching up with UK's Julius Randle (6-9), Dakari Johnson (7-foot) and Marcus Lee (6-9). Those three combined for 44 points and 22 rebounds for the Wildcats, and on one possession in the second half, after Michigan switched to a zone defense, Kentucky grabbed three offensive rebounds.
Michigan jumped out to a 9-2 lead after Stauskas hit his first three-point shot nearly four minutes in. Kentucky battled back, showing the same resolve it used to reach the Elite Eight. Lee, a freshman forward who had not scored in this NCAA tournament coming into the game, scored 10 first-half points – his highest single-game scoring output since November – including a series of tip dunks that made the thousands of Wildcats fans at Lucas Oil Stadium roar. Kentucky knotted the score at 37 three seconds before halftime on a dunk from Randle.
Less than three minutes before his game-winner, Harrison – who hit a go-ahead trey with 40 seconds remaining to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16 two days earlier – made another big three-point shot to put Kentucky up five. Michigan fought back to tie the score at 72 with 31 seconds remaining on a tip-in by Morgan that came after the Wolverines furiously tracked down two previous offensive rebounds to give themselves additional chances at evening the score.
Randle led Kentucky with 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Stauskas had 24 points for Michigan. Kentucky will face No. 2 seed Wisconsin on Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in the Final Four.
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