INDIANAPOLIS — Freshman guard Aaron Harrison managed to resist the temptation to tell us, “I told you so,” after his leaning, 24-foot, hand-in-his-face, 3-point shot with three seconds to go lifted Kentucky past the Michigan Wolverines 75-72 in the Midwest Region championship game here Sunday.
It was one of three 3-point shots that Harrison connected on over the tense, final 4:20 that not only lifted the Wildcats into this week’s Final Four in Dallas, but win or lose on that stage, no doubt lifted this Kentucky team into a lofty place in the hearts of the big blue faithful.
After the game, Harrison was reminded of a boast he made after Kentucky’s darkest hour this season — a 72-67 loss at lowly South Carolina on March 1. That debacle dropped the Wildcats — college basketball’s pre-season No. 1 team — out of the polls with a 22-8 record.
But Harrison claimed afterward that Kentucky would come back to “write a great story,’’ suggesting not only that the stars were still within reach for the Wildcats, but that they had both the will and the way to reach them.
“I wouldn’t say I told you so or anything because we had a few things to fix,” Harrison said. “And yes, that was a bad loss, but we knew what kind of team we could be. So that’s pretty much why I said it.
“Even though we lost, we came together then. We became stronger, because we knew that everyone on the outside wouldn’t be on our side after taking a loss to a team like that. But I knew we could do some things.”
“Things” that include a berth in the Final Four this week, a feat that adds new meaning to the word improbable.
The Wildcats take a 28-10 record into a battle against West Region champ Wisconsin on Saturday night.
Florida and Connecticut play in the other semifinal, with the winners meeting for the national title next Monday.
I write all this, and yet, it still doesn’t seem possible that the Kentucky team that lost on that dreary night at South Carolina, and even the Wildcats that were shellacked 84-65 a week later in Gainesville, have a chance to win the school’s ninth national title.
Many of us laughed out loud at such a notion most of this winter.
But no one’s laughing now. Certainly not the Kansas State Wildcats, 56-49 losers to UK in the first game of the NCAA Tournament; or No. 1 seeded Wichita State 78-76 losers to eighth-seeded Kentucky in the second game, March 23, and not the Louisville Cardinals, 74-69 losers to the Wildcats in Friday night’s Sweet Sixteen.
Adding even more improbability to it all is the fact that Kentucky posted the wins over Louisville and Michigan largely without 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, one of the premier shot blockers in college basketball. Cauley-Stein went down early in Friday’s Louisville game with a stress fracture, leaving UK’s responsibilities in the pivot largely up to 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson and seldom-used, 6-9 freshman Marcus Lee.
There was Lee on Sunday, figuratively writing a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it-story versus Michigan’s No. 2 seeded Wolverines (28-9). Lee came off the bench to score 10 points and grab eight rebounds in 15 minutes, making the Midwest Region all-tournament team with teammates Aaron Harrison and freshman forward Julius Randle.
Randle had 16 points and 11 rebounds Sunday and was named the region’s Most Valuable Player.
UK coach John Calipari said he told his Wildcats on Friday that Lee would be a hero.
“And you know Cal is always right,” Lee said to considerable laughter after the Michigan game. “He told the team I was going to have a big day. None of us believed him.”
“And everyone in the room would be talking about you, is what I said,” Calipari said.
“We had very little on him,” Michigan coach Jim Beilein said when asked about his scouting report on Lee.
And yet no one on the Kentucky side would have been talking about Marcus Lee on the podium post-game had it not been for Aaron Harrison, who scored 12 points against the Wolverines on 4-of-6 shooting from the 3-point line.
Aaron’s 3-pointer with 4:20 left extended a 62-61 Kentucky lead to 64-61. His trey with two minutes left made it 72-67, only to be matched by a 3-point shot by Michigan’s Glenn Robinson III 21 seconds later.
Harrison played the trump card after Jordan Morgan of the Wolverines scored on a tip-in to tie the game 72-72 with 27 seconds left.
Calipari called a time out to plan a final play. The UK coach never said exactly what that plan was, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t the downtown shot that Aaron Harrison was forced to attempt in near panic, with the hands of 6-6 Michigan guard Caris LeVert in his face.
“I can just tell you that last play we set up was: ‘Aaron, just step back and shoot a deep 3, they won’t guard you,’” Calipari said with a wink.
After a Michigan foul with 10 seconds left, Kentucky got the ball inbounds to Aaron’s brother, Andrew, who handed the ball to Aaron, seemingly somewhere in downtown Indianapolis.
“Andrew handed me the ball, and I kind of fumbled it,” Aaron said. “I had to get control of the ball back, and I tried to create some space. I knew it was going to be the last shot we were going to get. He (LeVert) was up on me. He touched my hand a little bit, actually. And the shot just fell.”
His teammates mobbed Aaron Harrison after a desperation 3-point shot from mid-court by Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas sailed well wide of the mark at the buzzer.
“I was in awe, looking at it,” said UK forward Alex Poythress, referring to Aaron’s game-winner. “It was like a rainbow shot — one of those shots that took like five seconds to drop.”
“When he made that shot, I mean, it was just ridiculous,” Randle said. “In that stage, in that atmosphere, that game ... to make that shot to send us to the Final Four is amazing.”
The Wildcats made plenty of shots in this one, however, 31 of 58, for 53.4 percent, to be precise.
James Young had 13 points to join Aaron Harrison and Lee in double figures for Kentucky.
UK out-rebounded Michigan 35-24.
Stauskas was fantastic for the Wolverines, scoring 24 points.
“Kentucky is a great team,’’ Stauskas said. “They deserve to go to the Final Four.’’