Kentucky players celebrate after an NCAA Midwest Regional final college basketball tournament game against Michigan Sunday, March 30, 2014, in Indianapolis. Kentucky won 75-72 to advance to the Final Four.(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)Kentucky players celebrate after an NCAA Midwest Regional final college basketball tournament game against Michigan Sunday, March 30, 2014, in Indianapolis. Kentucky won 75-72 to advance to the Final Four.(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
To make the Final Four for the third time in four years, eighth-seeded Kentucky had to defeat college basketball's only unbeaten team, the most feared No. 4 seed in the tournament and the regular season champs of the nation's toughest conference.
Somehow, the Wildcats found a way to do it.
Aaron Harrison secured Kentucky's place in the Final Four on Sunday when he received a dribble handoff from his brother, faked like he intended to drive and then buried a go-ahead step-back 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds left over the outstretched hands of Michigan's Caris Levert. That shot provided the final margin in a 75-72 Kentucky victory that ended the Wolverines' hopes of a second straight Final Four and kept alive the Wildcats' quest to atone for a poor regular season.
A Kentucky team loaded with NBA prospects entered the NCAA tournament as the easily nation's most disappointing team after a regular season that began with talk of going 40-0 ended with 10 losses and a No. 8 seed. The Wildcats have since redeemed themselves the past two weeks, taking down No. 9 seed Kansas State, No. 1 seed Wichita State, No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 2 seed Michigan to emerge from what was hailed as the NCAA tournament's strongest region.
Kentucky becomes only the sixth No. 8 seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Final Four. The only one to win the national title was Villanova's 1985 team that upset Georgetown in the championship game. Butler lost in the title game in 2011, as did UCLA in 1980. North Carolina and Wisconsin both lost in the semifinals in 2000.
That it was Harrison who sank the biggest shot should come as no surprise because he has been doing it all postseason. In Friday night's victory over Louisville, Harrison buried a corner 3-pointer off a beautiful feed from a spinning Julius Randle to give Kentucky a lead it never relinquished with 40 seconds to play.
All four of Harrison's baskets Sunday against Michigan were on 3-pointers and all four came in the final 8:08 of the game. He is now 13 of 24 from behind the arc in the NCAA tournament, a remarkable percentage made possible by all the open looks he has gotten because opposing defenses have been sucked into the paint to defend Kentucky's slashing guards or stable of big men.
Kentucky needed Harrison's latest huge shot to survive a wildly entertaining, back-and-forth game that featured punches and counter-punches from both sides. Michigan led by as many as 10 in the first half and trailed by as many as seven with less than seven minutes to play before mounting one final rally capped by a tip-in from Jordan Morgan to tie the game with 31 seconds to play.
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Michigan had one final chance to tie the game after Harrison's 3-pointer, but Kentucky learned from the Christian Laettner play 22 years ago and defended the inbound pass. As a result, all the Wolverines got was a half-court heave from Nik Stauskas that caromed harmlessly off the backboard.
Stauskas led the Wolverines with 24 points, while Glenn Robinson Jr. added 14 and Morgan had 11.
That perimeter-heavy Michigan offense might have been enough to overcome 53.4 percent shooting from Kentucky and 17 Wildcats' offensive rebounds were it not for Harrison's thunderbolt of a game-winning jump shot.
His teammates mobbed him after the game in recognition of a shot that extended their season, sent them to the Final Four and kept hope alive of an improbable national championship.
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