ARLINGTON, Texas — Only a few college basketball players ever have the chance to experience the exhilaration of sinking a game-winning shot in the NCAA tournament.
Aaron Harrison has felt it three times in eight days.
Harrison added to his legend in Saturday night's second national semifinal with a game-winning 3-pointer that came via a broken play.
With Kentucky trailing Wisconsin by two and time melting away late in the second half, Andrew Harrison attacked the rim, got caught in the air on the baseline and had to throw the ball to Dakari Johnson to avoid a turnover. Johnson quickly threw it back to Andrew in the corner, Andrew swung it to his brother on the left wing and Aaron coolly buried a deep 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Josh Gasser with 5.7 seconds left, giving the Wildcats a 74-73 win that secured a spot in Monday night's national title game against UConn.
Aaron Harrison's thunderbolt of a 3-pointer was his third game-winning shot in Kentucky's last three NCAA tournament victories. He sank a corner 3-pointer to give the Wildcats the lead in the final minute against fourth-seeded Louisville in the Midwest regional semifinals and then beat second-seeded Michigan two nights later with a dagger in the final seconds from behind the arc.
"You want to be the guy to take the big shot," a sheepish Aaron said amid a swarm of reporters in the Kentucky locker room after the game. "I'm just blessed, I guess."
Andrew Harrison is also blessed because Aaron's heroics saved him from some tough postgame questions.
Andrew Harrison missed a pair of jumpers in the final minutes, possessions that Kentucky would perhaps have been better served trying to exploit its advantage in the paint. Then with the score tied in the final 30 seconds, Andrew Harrison also bit on a shot fake from Traevon Jackson as the shot clock was winding down, enabling the Wisconsin point guard to draw a foul and sink two of three free throws to give the Badgers a short-lived lead.
"Aaron saved me today. I didn't play well at all," Andrew Harrison said. "I was a little upset at myself because I missed the shot before that was a pretty big shot and I gave the foul. I felt like it would have been on my shoulders if we'd have lost the game."
That Kentucky is now one win away from a ninth national championship is an astonishing reversal in fortune.
A Wildcats team loaded with NBA prospects entered the NCAA tournament as easily the nation's biggest underachiever after finishing the regular season with 10 losses and a No. 8 seed. The Wildcats redeemed themselves the past three weeks, taking down unbeaten Wichita State, defending national champion Louisville and Big Ten regular season winner Michigan to emerge from what was hailed as the NCAA tournament's strongest region.
Uncharacteristically torrid 3-point shooting was a big reason Kentucky won those three games, but until Harrison's 3-pointer, this game had been all about the Wildcats' interior play.
Julius Randle, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee combined for 38 points and contributed to Kentucky's domination of the offensive glass. Kentucky attempted only five 3-pointers even with Wisconsin's guards playing well inside the 3-point arc and daring the Wildcats to shoot.
"Nobody has ever played me like that before," Andrew Harrison said. "It's kind of hard to shoot when they're playing you like that to be honest. I think I only made one jumper."
For Wisconsin, Saturday's loss leaves an otherwise sweet season with a sour aftertaste. The Badgers won 30 games, finished second in the Big Ten and made the Final Four by upsetting top-seeded Arizona in the West regional final, but they too fell victim to Aaron Harrison's cold-blooded late-game magic.
That the Badgers emerged as the Big Ten's best hope of ending its 14-year title drought would have been difficult to see coming at the beginning of the season.
Michigan State began the season no worse than third in every major top-25 poll, Michigan had some key players back from last year's national runner-ups and Ohio State returned almost everyone from a team that fell one win shy of the Final Four last March. Plus, Wisconsin had a reputation as a postseason underachiever, only reaching one Elite Eight since 2000 prior to this season despite making the NCAA tournament 13 straight years under Bo Ryan.
Wisconsin certainly eradicated that reputation this season between its four NCAA tournament victories and the way it responded to every Kentucky haymaker with a counterpunch of its own.
Kentucky threatened to run away from Wisconsin early in the second half when the Wildcats unleashed a breathtaking 15-0 surge that turned a seven-point deficit into an eight-point lead. Fueling the run were three offensive rebounds that led to baskets: one a jump shot from James Young, another a put-back by Johnson and a third a beautiful tip-in from Poythress of a wild transition runner from Young.
What stemmed the run for Wisconsin was contributions from an unlikely source. Duje Dukan, who averaged 2.7 points per game off the bench this season, had a tip-in and a pair of 3-pointers in a 13-4 Badgers run that put them back in front 56-55 and sent the message this would not be easy for the Wildcats.
"I'm extremely proud of these guys," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "When it comes down to a one-possession game, the last possession always seems so magnified. But there were 60, 70, 80 possessions in there and a lot of those ended up being crucial. We just came up one short."
Indeed Wisconsin did everything it could, with the exception perhaps of keeping the ball out of Aaron Harrison's hands on the last possession.
He made the Badgers pay, his name is etched into Kentucky lore and the Wildcats are one victory from another championship.
- - - - - - -