By Eddie Pells
INDIANAPOLIS – The shot came from NBA range, and if things play out as expected, Aaron Harrison and a lot of those Kentucky kids will be playing in that league soon enough.
First, they’re heading to the Final Four – a trip to Big D courtesy of Harrison’s unforgettable big shot.
The 6-foot-6 forward made a 3-pointer from about 24 feet with 2.3 seconds left Sunday to lift the Wildcats and all those freshmen to a 75-72 win over Michigan and the program’s 16th trip to the Final Four.
He backpedaled slowly, almost expressionless, after ball hit twine. Teammates Dakari Johnson and Julius Randle chased him down.
“Making that shot and seeing my teammates so happy and turning toward me, it’s the best feeling in the world,” Harrison said.
Michigan’s Nik Stauskas missed a desperation heave at the buzzer and then, it was Harrison’s turn on the bottom of a dog pile. Make that a puppy pile. Eighth-seeded Kentucky is the first all-freshman starting lineup to make the Final Four since the Fab Five at Michigan in 1992.
The Wildcats (28-10) will play Wisconsin next Saturday outside of Dallas at AT&T Stadium.
“They made a great shot,” said Stauskas, who led the second-seeded Wolverines with 24 points. “I thought we did a pretty good job contesting it. It’s part of basketball.”
The Wolverines (28-9) ended their season one win shy of a second straight Final Four.
What a ride this has been for this group of Wildcats, an all-new collection of McDonald’s All-Americans touted as the team that could go 40-0, then dismissed out of hand when the bad losses and bad basketball piled up in January and February.
Coach John Calipari got things turned around by March, and for the second straight game in the Midwest Regional, Harrison made the shot that gave the Wildcats the lead for good. On Friday, he made the key 3 in Kentucky’s 74-69 win over Louisville.
This time, he took a handoff from his twin brother, Andrew, in the corner and dribbled three times to the top left of the arc. He was standing a good three feet behind the line when he elevated over Caris LeVert and took a bit of contact on the hand from the Michigan guard as he shot. No matter. The ball rattled in.
“In that stage, that atmosphere, that game, to make that shot and send us to the Final Four, it’s just amazing,” Randle said.
Aaron Harrison scored 12 points off four 3-pointers over the last 8:05 and was the obvious choice to take the game-winner.
He’s not afraid
“I’ve been around guys who make these kind of plays,” Calipari said. “I’ve always said, ‘You cannot be afraid to miss.’ He’s not afraid to miss. That’s the whole thing about making those kind of plays. And if he does miss, he’s going to shoot it again.”
It wasn’t all Harrison, of course.
While he was being shut down early, it was Marcus Lee – surprisingly – keeping the Wildcats in the game.
Lee, another McDonald’s All-American freshmen on Calipari’s roster, had scored a total of nine points since the beginning of January, relegated to the bench after an early season illness.
In this one, he got minutes that would have normally gone to the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, and finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. Eight of those points came on put-back dunks that were part of Kentucky’s 18 offensive rebounds.
Harrison’s first 3 gave Kentucky a 58-55 lead and was part of an 11-0 run that made it 62-55 with 6:30 left.
Randle – considered lottery pick material if he decides to go to the NBA – finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
UConn 60, Michigan State 54: Shabazz Napier owed UConn.
He could have transferred when academic sanctions barred the Huskies from the NCAA tournament his junior season. But the guard wanted to pay back the school for the joy of a national title his freshman year, for his struggles as a sophomore.
Napier did that Sunday, carrying UConn back to the Final Four in front of thousands of roaring Huskies fans at Madison Square Garden. He scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half in a 60-54 upset of fourth-seeded Michigan State.
The East Regional’s most outstanding player hit three huge free throws with 30.6 seconds left, making clutch shot after clutch shot just as Kemba Walker did when Napier was a freshman. The Huskies (30-8) rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to become the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“His will to win – you could just see it,” said Gary Harris, who led Michigan State with 22 points. “He wasn’t going to let his team lose.”