NEWARK, N.J. – Kentucky had fallen one agonizing game short last season of reaching a Final Four it had seemed destined to reach, then lost five players who were first-round selections in the NBA draft.
But even though expectations were not nearly as great this season, the Wildcats got to the Final Four after all, outdueling North Carolina in the final three minutes Sunday to defeat the Tar Heels, 76-69, and reserve a spot in the national semifinals.
The champion of the East Regional as a No. 4 seed, Kentucky (29-8) will take on Connecticut, the winner in the West, in the nightcap of Saturday’s Final Four doubleheader at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Even though coach John Calipari brought in three highly-regarded freshmen to try to fill the talent gap this season, the Wildcats were not thought to be a serious candidate for a Final Four.
But the freshmen continued to mesh with the three holdovers from last season and finally understood Calipari’s lectures on defense and toughness.
In reaching the Final Four for the 14th time, the Wildcats knocked off the No. 1 seed (Ohio State) and the No. 2 seed (North Carolina) in less than 48 hours at the Prudential Center.
“A lot of people doubted us this year,” senior center Josh Harrellson said. “We know we struggled early in the season, lost a couple of close games we should have won. But we really pulled it together as a team. We’re back now.”
Calipari explained it as trying to make his players believe in themselves.
“Everyone wants to say you can’t win with young players,” he said. “I say if it is talent or experience and I have a choice, I’m taking talent. We will figure out how to make them play together, how to get them to defend, how to increase their toughness, how they have to play to win ball games. I’m proud of these guys.”
The Wildcats won this game from the 3-point line, knocking down 12 in 22 attempts compared to 3 of 16 for North Carolina (29-8). Brandon Knight, who was voted the region’s outstanding player, swished five en route to a game-high 22 points.
The Wildcats, who trailed in the game only when it was 2-0, had their most anxious moment when the Tar Heels went on a 10-2 run to tie it at 67-all with 3 minutes, 18 seconds remaining. Freshman Harrison Barnes scored eight of Carolina’s points, and Tyler Zeller hit the two free throws to knot it up.
Then Knight, who played all 40 minutes, knocked down a 3-pointer with 2:51 to play to put Kentucky in front for good. Zeller’s tip-in at the 1:55 mark cut the North Carolina deficit to one, but the Tar Heels would never tie the game again.
DeAndre Liggins made sure of it after blocking Kendall Marshall’s drive in the lane at one end, then knocking down a trey from the right corner at the other with 34.8 seconds remaining.
The Tar Heels had the services of 6-foot-10 sophomore John Henson, their leading rebounder and shot-blocker, for barely more than half the game. Henson picked up three personal fouls in the first half and fouled out with 18.8 seconds left after playing only 23 minutes.
Zeller led Carolina with 21 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots, and Barnes added 18 points.