This season, the unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats routinely destroyed teams, most notably West Virginia in the Sweet 16 by the score of 78–39. However, on Saturday Kentucky was forced to rally against Notre Dame, having fallen behind by as many as six points with 6:14 to go. Eventually the Wildcats returned to form, pulling out the victory against the Irish 68–66. It was their 38th win, which tied the record for most in a college basketball season that Memphis set in 2009.
In a game marked by 20 lead changes, Kentucky advanced to its second straight Final Four appearance on the strength of 25 points from forward Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns was named the MVP of the Midwest Regional.
Towns did not miss a shot in the second half, going 8 for 8 from the field. “I felt very confident in myself and just made confident moves,” he said. “I listened to the coaching staff and was just making shots.”
The game’s ending was filled with excitement, as the Wildcats and Irish each sought to have the upper hand. Notre Dame led by four with 4:28 to play; however, Towns promptly made a layup and a free throw to cut the Irish lead to one.
After a free throw by forward Pat Connaughton of Notre Dame, Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison nailed a three-pointer to put the Wildcats up by one with 3:15 left. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant answered with his own trey 40 seconds later to give the Irish a one-point lead.
A Towns layup tied the game with 1:12 to go, and Andrew Harrison sealed the win with a pair of free throws with six ticks left.
On the game’s final play, Grant sprinted the length of the court with the ball, and, after finding himself triple-teamed by Kentucky, launched a desperation three as time expired. It missed, setting off a wild celebration by the Kentucky faithful.
Forward Zach Auguste had a monster performance for Notre Dame, scoring 20 points and falling a rebound short of a triple double. Connaughton also contributed eight points and nine rebounds.
Next up for Kentucky is Wisconsin, which defeated Arizona in the West Regional. Wildcats coach John Calipari is high on the Badgers, as well as fellow Final Four participant Duke. “I’ve said all along the three best teams were us, Wisconsin, Arizona — and Duke,” he said.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was proud of his team, which finished the season at 32–6 and won the ACC tournament. Said Brey, “We emptied the tank tonight, and that’s all I asked them to do before the game.”
Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images