By Ashley Scoby
“Don’t miss,” Andrew Harrison told himself as he walked to the line for two free throws. His 37-0 team was tied 66-66 with Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional Final Saturday night, and six seconds potentially remained in his undefeated season.
“Those are the times you think of as a little kid,” he said.
Harrison’s childhood practice shots paid off (twice), and top-ranked Kentucky ended a roller-coaster of a cage match with the Fighting Irish in a game that saw 12 ties and 20 lead changes. No team saw a lead larger than six points before the Wildcats preserved their perfect season, 68-66, against third-seeded Notre Dame, and secured a spot in the Final Four next week in Indianapolis.
Harrison’s free throws were the good karma returning for him, after a crucial turnover with 1:59 remaining when he stepped out of bounds on a baseline drive. At the time, Kentucky was down by two to a team that ended up shooting 46 percent from the field and was lauded as one of the best offenses in the country.
Jerian Grant, who finished with 15 points for Notre Dame, missed a jumper on the other end, and Karl-Anthony Towns tied it up at 66-66 with his spin move in the paint. Towns finished with 25 points off 10-of-13 shooting in one of his best games of the season.
Kentucky made its last nine field goal attempts – when it counted most – and led by Towns didn’t miss a shot over the last 12 minutes of the game.
“Offensively, he was a monster,” said Willie Cauley-Stein. “The dude (Zach Augustine) couldn’t stop him. When he’s playing like that, you give them the ball and get out of his way and let him go to work.”
Cauley-Stein might have gotten out of the way for his own guy, but not for the Fighting Irish. Assigned to perimeter defense for most of the game, Cauley-Stein got a piece of Grant’s three-point attempt with 34 seconds on the clock. His fingertips barely grazed it, but it was enough to keep the game tied, setting Harrison’s free throws up 28 seconds later.
“We were just fighting to stay in the game, to be honest with you,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari. “And it was nice to see how it finished for these kids.”
The first half saw 10 ties and 13 lead changes, although the Fighting Irish were largely in control early.
Twenty of Notre Dame’s 31 points came in the paint, often on backdoor cuts straight to the basket. Meanwhile, the Wildcats – against an outsized Notre Dame lineup, especially after Auguste picked up two early fouls – struggled to score inside. Towns was 2-of-5 from the field, Trey Lyles was 3-of-8 and several of Kentucky’s baskets in the paint came from putbacks rather than offensive moves.
“We knew we were going to throw to the post every chance we could, and we just missed,” Calipari said. “They were physical enough to cause us to miss 10 one-footers in the first half.”
Kentucky came out of halftime like the team that slaughtered West Virginia by 39 points on Thursday. Towns scored three straight times (on his way to a perfect 8-of-8 performance in the second half) and Devin Booker stroked a three-pointer (he was 2-3 from behind the arc). The Wildcats were rolling, up 38-33 with 18:07 to play – the largest margin in the game to that point.
But as much as Towns couldn’t be stopped, neither could the guy defending him. Auguste went an identical 10-of-13 from the field for 20 points, including 12 in the second half.
Notre Dame rode Auguste’s putback dunks and reverse layups to an eventual 59-53 lead with 6:14 to play after a Steve Vasturia three-pointer. Kentucky had seen deficits before, but rarely one that large and that late in a game.
Tyler Ulis, with 5:52 on the clock, cut that in half with a three-pointer from the wing, and the Fighting Irish would never be able to get back to that margin again. They led all the way up to the 3:15 mark, until Aaron Harrison – he of three game-winning shots in the NCAA tournament last year – coolly swished a three-pointer from approximately LeBron James’ house, giving Kentucky the 64-63 lead. He was at least three feet behind the arc, but never hesitated.
Grant did the same on the other end, from nearly an identical distance, putting the Fighting Irish up 66-64 with 2:35 to play – their last lead before Towns’ turnaround shot in the paint, Cauley-Stein’s barely-there block and two icy free throws from Andrew Harrison.
After the theatrics were over and the chaos of the post-game celebration had subsided, Towns sat at his locker cradling the Midwest Regional trophy.
“It was such a close game and this is March Madness – anything could happen,” Towns said, resting his cheek on the trophy. “He could have hit that last shot and all the heroics we just did to get to that point could have been for nothing. I just think the biggest thing is that we were able to do something special. I think the biggest thing is not relief, but just joy, knowing that as bad as we played today, we found a will to win and got a W.”
Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York in June.
Courtesy of KyForward