NEWARK, N.J. -- They'd played this game before. Two nights earlier, actually. Not to mention both games last weekend in Tampa. And umpteen SEC games before that.
Once again, the Kentucky Wildcats were locked in a heart-racing, last-minute staredown, only this time with the added stakes of a Final Four berth on the line. Their opponent, North Carolina, had just wiped out an eight-point deficit to tie the score 67-67 with 3:18 left. The Tar Heel contingent of the Prudential Center crowd was roaring, just like the Ohio State section had after a game-tying three-pointer by Jon Diebler late in their Sweet 16 game.
The Wildcats could have panicked. Two months earlier, they almost certainly would have.
"Except five seconds later, Brandon [Knight] hit that three," freshman forward Terrence Jones said afterward.
It wasn't quite as anticlimactic as Jones remembered. Twenty-seven game seconds passed between Tyler Zeller's game-tying free throws and the latest dagger shot by Kentucky's freshman point guard. But it wasn't long after that when DeAndre Liggins blocked a potential go-ahead layup by UNC's Kendall Marshall and drained a killer three-pointer. Knight hit two game-clinching free-throws, and soon thereafter Jay-Z was visiting the Wildcats' locker room to congratulate them on a 76-69 victory that clinched the school's first Final Four berth since 1998.
"We've got clutch players on our team," said freshman guard Doron Lamb. "They make clutch shots."
That wasn't always the case for the 2010-11 Wildcats. They spent much of January and February losing one heartbreaker after another -- 68-66 at Alabama, 71-69 at Ole Miss, 70-68 at Florida, 81-77 at Vanderbilt. It's why they finished the regular season a modest 10-6 in the SEC and, even after winning the SEC Tournament (in relatively easy fashion), entered the NCAA Tournament as a deceiving No. 4 seed -- the lowest for a John Calipari-coached team since 2004.
"There was a time where I believed in these guys more than they believed in themselves," Calipari said on the eve of Sunday's game.
Now, these Wildcats are as confident as they come, led by the continued heroics of their star freshman point guard. Over the past two weeks, on the sport's biggest stage, he's helped put the finishing touches on one clutch victory after another. It began with a game-winning layup to avoid an opening-game NCAA tournament upset to Princeton. Two days later, he hit six free throws in the final minute to ice West Virginia. On Friday, his pull-up jumper in the final seconds eliminated top seed Ohio State.
On Sunday, his game-high 22 points on the stat sheet didn't begin to tell just how many times he stepped up and knocked down a crucial trey just when it seemed the Tar Heels were gaining momentum. Kentucky led nearly the entire way, but never by an entirely comfortable margin, despite shooting 12-of-22 from three-point range
When Zeller spun open for a dunk to cut a one-time eight-point deficit to three just before halftime, Knight responded with a three. Another trey early in the second half gave Kentucky its biggest lead, 44-34, and when UNC got it back down to 56-51, Knight stepped up with another one.
But his most important shot of all came with 2:51 remaining. After Tar Heels freshman Harrison Barnes keyed a 10-2 mini-explosion to tie the score for the first time since the first half, Knight nailed a spot-up shot from the right corner over the outstretched hand of UNC's Dexter Strickland.
"He stepped up and made great shots," said Strickland. "I think we could have played better defense, supportive defense, but he's a great player and he stepped up and made great shots."
The last time Kentucky lost, 10 games ago, was in overtime at Arkansas, when Knight, despite scoring a then-career high 26 points, missed three potential game-winning shots in the final seconds. He seemingly hasn't stopped swishing them since.
"After that game, I used missing those shots as motivation," he said. "I knew if I had the chance again I'd make them."
Not that Knight did it himself. Just like against Ohio State, Liggins (12 points, three steals), the previously unthreatening junior, made two of the game's biggest plays shortly after Knight's jumper. After scoring 15 points and serving as a defensive stopper against the Buckeyes' veteran backcourt, Calipari inserted him into the starting lineup in place of Lamb and gave him the assignment of corralling Tar Heels point guard Marshall. He did just that, limiting him to 2-of-10 shooting and largely preventing Roy Williams' team from playing at its usual high tempo.
And of course, there was postseason hero Josh "Jorts" Harrellson (12 points, eight rebounds), the VCU/Butler of NCAA tournament post players. The physical senior couldn't hold down Tar Heels center Zeller, who finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, but he did cause problems for lanky forward John Henson, who spent most of the game in foul trouble, and limited opportunities in the paint for UNC's guards.
The two upperclassmen, along with the junior Darius Miller (11 points), have come a long way since a Feb. 1 loss at Ole Miss when none scored a point in the second half, eliciting Calipari's ire.
"That's when we sat down and said, 'This is your team. Why are you relying on freshmen?'" said Calipari. "Since that time, this team has done that. That's why we're here."
Of course, they also wouldn't be here without Knight, the latest Calipari point-guard prodigy who seems destined for NBA riches. But that alone doesn't ensure one's place in the Final Four. Ask Tyreke Evans or John Wall.
In fact, a whole generation of stars -- Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans, Rajon Rondo -- have passed through Lexington over the past 13 years without experiencing what Knight, Liggins, Harrellson and Co. did Sunday. It was the longest Final Four drought in the program's history, one made all the more frustrating for Big Blue supporters by the fact that everyone from George Mason to Butler to Virginia Commonwealth is going to Final Fours these days.
Twice under Tubby Smith and last year under Calipari, Kentucky squads lost in the Elite Eight to lower-seeded opponents. The Wildcats finally broke through during a rare year in which they got to sneak up on the field.
"Yeah, I am a little bit surprised we're here," said the coach who will be leading his third different school to the Final Four. (Though according to the NCAA, the past two never happened.) "Not because of how my team was playing, I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off.
"... We lost a lot of close games because of me, not just them. We were still trying to figure out how to play. This is a brand-new team. Three freshmen and three returning players who did not play much [previously]. So now all six of them together, I was still figuring out, how do we play at the end of a game? What can I let them play through? Where do I have to stop the game? Who needs to be in at what times?"
They've known exactly where to be, when to be, in late-game situations this entire tournament, and with little prodding from Calipari, who called just one timeout in the last three minutes.
Now they'll look to continue their tear next weekend against an equally torrid opponent, Connecticut -- which, like North Carolina, beat the Wildcats early in the season.
"This feels good, but I'm never satisfied," said Knight. "We want to win a national championship."
If the games are close and his shot is on, book it.