CLEVELAND – With everything at stake, Kentucky didn’t panic and played to perfection.
The Wildcats made clutch shots, buckled down on fearless Notre Dame and kept their unblemished season intact.
The shot at history and another NCAA title are in reach.
Andrew Harrison made two free throws with 6 seconds remaining, and the unbeaten Wildcats made their last nine shots to survive their toughest test to date, coming back after trailing for much of the second half to defeat the Fighting Irish 68-66 on Saturday night in the Midwest Regional final.
The Wildcats (38-0), seeking to become college basketball’s first undefeated champion in 39 years, advanced to the Final Four in Indianapolis next week, where they will meet Wisconsin – a rematch of last year’s semifinal.
“We know our will to win,” said Aaron Harrison, who hit a crucial 3-pointer. “And it just showed us we never give up, and we fight to the end just like any other team.”
These Wildcats are not like any other team.
The Fighting Irish (32-6) came within seconds of shocking the tournament’s overwhelming favorite. Notre Dame, with a rich history of stunning upsets in football and basketball, wasn’t done until Jerian Grant’s double-clutch 3-pointer from the left corner was long.
“We didn’t play very well and Notre Dame, I thought, controlled the whole thing, but we made the plays,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We figured out a way to win it. We’ve had other tests, but we have a will to win.”
Karl-Anthony Towns scored 25 – 17 after halftime – to lead Kentucky.
Zach Auguste scored 20, Steve Vasturia 16 and Grant 15 for the third-seeded Fighting Irish, playing in their first regional final in 36 years.
There was no doubt Notre Dame belonged. The ACC tournament champions controlled the tempo and weren’t intimated by the Wildcats and their collection of high school All-Americans and soon-to-be NBA millionaires.
The Fighting Irish took the fight to Kentucky and nearly pulled off another one of those shockers.
“We really thought we had a great chance of beating them, and I thought we displayed that,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “But I think you’ve got to give them credit, they made some big plays, they made some timely 3-point shots at key times.”
Calipari insisted on Friday his team was not perfect, only unbeaten and that any team left in the tournament was capable of toppling the top Cats.
Notre Dame was right there.
“It’s tough,” said Grant. “Just to be so close to making history, from doing something so special and just like that it’s over.”
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