INDIANAPOLIS — The first two weekends of the NCAA tournament had been so good and so full of high-level hoops that it only made sense it'd be punctuated by an exclamation point in the last Elite Eight game.
And so, with an epic game tied and the clock ticking under 10 seconds, Kentucky's Aaron Harrison took a handoff from his twin brother Andrew, fumbled it a bit, collected himself, stepped back from the three-point line and fired a shot over the outstretched hand of Michigan's Caris LeVert.
About 24 feet of airspace later, Harrison's shot found the bottom of the net and Harrison found himself being pursued by his teammates down the court. There were still 2.3 seconds and a wayward three-point attempt by Nik Stauskus to be played but the Kentucky players had already shed their game faces — a combination of determination, intensity and the pressure felt by being the obsession of an entire commonwealth.
With Sunday's 75-72 victory over Michigan in the Midwest regional final in their grasp, Kentucky could finally celebrate a bit. Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson trapped Aaron Harrison in a hug. Harrison smiled and raised his arm. The rest of the Wildcats spilled off the bench to greet him as the crowd of 35,551 at Lucas Oil Stadium — an overwhelming majority of which was wearing Kentucky's shade of blue — roared.
Three straight instant classics. Three straight victories from a squad that starts five freshmen and played seven on Sunday.
"Making that shot and seeing my teammates so happy and running toward me, it's the best feeling in the world," Harrison said after the game.
Did he think the shot would go in?
"Yeah, I think had a little bit of an [idea]," Harrison said. "Not fully, but kind of."
A Final Four date with Wisconsin awaits Kentucky at AT&T Stadium next Saturday and the Wildcats are early 2.5-point favorites.
Could they be considered the favorite to also outlast Florida and UConn next weekend after escaping the regional of death?
Maybe. Harrison's shot extended a Kentucky postseason that has proven the Wildcats are an eight-seed in name only. After a second-round victory over Kansas State, Kentucky dispatched previously unbeaten Wichita State in a Round of 32 classic. Friday night in Indianapolis brought a title-level fight against in-state rival and defending national champion Louisville and then there was Big Ten regular season champion and 2013 national runner-up Michigan on Sunday.
The common thread? All three teams had been in last year's Final Four, a time when a majority of the Wildcats roster had been competing in high school playoffs across the country and preparing for prom.
None of the past three wins were easy, with Kentucky trailing by at least nine points in all three games. In each case, though, its superior collection of talent — six Wildcats played in last year's McDonalds All-American Game — won out. This Kentucky team is so deep and versatile when it's on that you have to wonder if they'll fulfill their preseason expectation of being the first national title winner to start five freshmen.
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Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson not being effective early? Fine, let Marcus Lee, a top-30 recruit who likely would've started for any other program in the country, come off the bench to surprise the Wolverines with 10 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes of work.
Willie Cauley-Stein out with an injury? Randle, Lee and Johnson make his absence go almost undetected by outrebounding Michigan 35-24 and dominating the glass.
Andrew Harrison (you can tell them apart because he wears his hair longer) goes 3-of-12 while brother Aaron goes scoreless in the first half? The rest of the team picks them up long enough for Aaron to hit four big three-pointers in the second half, including three in the final five minutes.
That delegation of duties always wasn't there for Kentucky this season and it's a major reason the Wildcats lost 10 games this season. But the arrival of the team concept, however late, is also a reason this collection of NBA prospects is still alive.
"It's hard when all [the freshman] scored 28 points a game in high school to give up something," coach John Calipari said. "When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier. They had more fun. They became more confident and all of a sudden this is what you have."
"But it took us four months."
A handful of Kentucky players like Randle, Cauley-Stein and James Young — maybe even the Harrison twins after this month — may opt for the NBA draft once this March Madness run is over. Calipari bemoaned the fact he's seemingly coaching a different team each year, but he also praised the team for following his oft-cited "process" of learning to win over the course of the season.
"You can see this team is empowered right now," Calipari said. "It's their team, it's not my team. I'm just there to maybe call a timeout to settle them down."
Indeed, it would appear that the young Wildcats are finally figuring out they can live up to expectations among all the doubts and schadenfreude from those who don't reside in Big Blue Nation. Leading the way is Aaron Harrison, a freshman who has gotten plenty of criticism, but who also came out immediately after the crushing rock-bottom loss to South Carolina on March 1 and said the Wildcats were still capable of making a run.
Now, two wins away from the program's second national title in three years, Harrison's words look prescient and are on the brink of becoming fable in the state of Kentucky.
"I said it, so I guess I saw it coming," Harrison said of that prediction on Sunday. "I wouldn't say 'I told you so' or anything but I knew we had a few things to fix. Yes, that was a bad loss, but we knew what kind of team we could be."
That "kind of team" stood up to every punch that a very talented Michigan squad threw at it, including an early 10-point deficit that Kentucky easily erased by halftime. While Michigan's offensive play was stellar as always and features players with NBA decisions of their own, Kentucky never wilted when it was their turn with the ball.
That included the Wildcats' final possession when Calipari instructed Harrison to "just step back and shoot a deep three ... they won't guard you."
The running line around the Kentucky program is that Calipari is always right and it was echoed by Lee in the postgame interview before Calipari noted that he had been wrong once in "1978, but it's been awhile."
Calipari, of course, was half-wrong in saying that Michigan wouldn't contest Harrison's shot — LeVert did his best to deny the shot and extend a contest that his coach John Beilein called an excellent advertisement for the college game — but the Kentucky coach was right in giving the ball to Harrison.
If you add Sunday's shot to his big three near the end of the Louisville game, you realize that Harrison has ensured he'll always be remembered favorably in Lexington no matter how soon he leaves it.
"I just tried to take the best shot I could," Harrison said. "And it fell."
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