Men's College Basketball: Final Four fully loaded
By Bucky Dent
INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison had a harsh but correct assessment of his first half performance Sunday.
“I wasn’t there for my team,” he said.
That changed in the last four minutes and 19 seconds. Harrison drilled three critical 3-pointers, including the game winner over Michigan guard Caris LeVert with 2.6 seconds left, and the eighth-seeded Wildcats beat the second-seeded Wolverines 75-72 to capture the Midwest Region championship in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Kentucky (28-10) will meet West Region champion Wisconsin on Saturday night in a national semifinal at Arlington, Texas.
Before the season, many expected the Wildcats and their plethora of freshmen — seven of the eight players Sunday who saw action were in high school at this time a year ago — to reach the Final Four.
However, Kentucky went about it in a way that gave its huge following reason for worry. The Wildcats grew more inconsistent in the regular season’s final month, bottoming out March 1 with a loss at lowly South Carolina during a game in which coach John Calipari was tossed and then skipped the postgame press conference.
However, Calipari made some tweaks before the Southeastern Conference tournament, and his team has played to its potential since, going 6-1, with the only loss a one-pointer to top-seeded Florida in the SEC title game.
“I guess I saw it coming,” Harrison said of the turnaround. “(The South Carolina game) was a bad loss, but we knew what we could do.”
Kentucky’s potential was apparent the past three games, all dramatic wins in which victory wasn’t assured until the very end.
The Wildcats beat Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan by a combined 10 points.
“All three of those games have been epic,” Calipari said. “We’ve been down by 10 points in every game, but this team seems to play better when it falls behind. They bow their necks and they just play.”
The Wolverines (28-9) didn’t shame themselves in defeat. They shot 47.4 percent from the field and committed just seven turnovers against a long, athletic opponent.
Michigan guard Nik Stauskas scored a game-high 24 points, 18 in the first half, while forward Glenn Robinson III hit for 14 and forward Jordan Morgan netted 11 points.
“Even the people in the highest seats got their money’s worth,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of the Kentucky-leaning crowd of 35,551. “That was a great game for college basketball.”
After Morgan’s tip-in with 31.5 seconds left evened the score at 72, the Wildcats melted the clock down to 10 seconds before LeVert committed a non-shooting foul, the Wolverines’ sixth of the half. Calipari opted against a timeout, and Harrison made the decision a good one.
Taking a dribble handoff, Harrison dribbled twice and let fly with a 24-footer over the outstretched LeVert. The ball melted into the net as Harrison’s teammates mobbed him near midcourt.
“I knew it was going to be our last shot (of regulation),” Harrison said. “A little bit after I shot it, I knew it was going in. It felt pretty good.”
Following a timeout, Stauskas tried a running shot from midcourt with time expiring, but it was wide right.
Kentucky forward Julius Randle notched his fourth consecutive double-double, posting 16 points and 11 rebounds. Forward James Young tallied 13 points, Harrison scored 12, and little-used forward Marcus Lee finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. All four are freshmen.
The Wolverines looked like the more composed team at the start, establishing a 14-6 lead just over six minutes into the game after Stauskas stuck a 3-pointer.
However, Kentucky worked its way back into the game behind a shocking boost from Lee, who scored just 45 points in 126 minutes entering the game. Lee, playing because center Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle) was injured in Friday night’s win over Louisville, fired up the Wildcats fans with three emphatic rebound dunks in less than two minutes.
“We had very little on him,” Beilein said of Michigan’s scouting report on Lee. “He does one thing very well: He plays way over the rim.”
Stauskas’ driving layup gave the Wolverines a 32-22 lead with 5:11 left in the half, but Kentucky rallied with a 15-5 spurt to end the half. Forward Julius Randle nailed a pull-up jumper with 2.7 seconds remaining for a 37-37 tie at halftime.
“It was another classic game,” Calipari said. “They weren’t going to go away, and we didn’t either.”
Connecticut 60, Michigan State 54
Shabazz Napier scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half and helped close it out at the line as the Huskies knocked off the Spartans Sunday in the East regional final of the NCAA tournament in New York.
DeAndre Daniels collected 12 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 seed Connecticut (30-8), which will take on top overall seed Florida in the Final Four next weekend. Ryan Boatright scored 11 points for the Huskies, who are aiming for their second NCAA championship in the last four years.
Gary Harris scored 22 points to lead No. 4 seed Michigan State (29-9). Adreian Payne recorded 13 points and nine boards for the Spartans but became part of the first senior class in coach Tom Izzo’s tenure not to reach the Final Four during his career.
Daniels’ three-point play capped a 12-0 run and gave Connecticut a 35-32 lead with just under 12 minutes to play, and the advantage stretched to 49-39 on Boatright’s 3-pointer with 6 1/2 minutes left. Denzel Valentine and Harris responded with back-to-back 3-pointers and Michigan State drew within 53-51 on Payne’s free throws with 57 seconds left, but Napier was fouled on a 3-pointer attempt at the other end and hit all three free throws to help put it away.
The Huskies got off to a hot start and held a 10-point lead five minutes into the game before the Spartans fought back, grabbing their first lead on back-to-back 3-pointers by Harris to kick off a 16-2 run that bridged the half and left Michigan State up 32-23. The Spartans went nearly seven minutes without a field goal as Connecticut battled back to retake the lead.
Wisconsin 64, Arizona 63, OT
Frank Kaminsky posted 28 points and 11 rebounds as the Badgers edged the Wildcats in an overtime thriller Saturday in Anaheim, Calif., to win the West regional and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2000.
In this year’s only Elite Eight matchup featuring a region’s top two seeds, the top-seeded Wildcats and No. 2 Badgers did not disappoint with Kaminsky leading the way on 11-of-20 shooting, including three 3-pointers. Kaminsky scored six points in overtime and Traevon Jackson finished with 10 points for Wisconsin (30-7), which will face Midwest regional champion Kentucky in Saturday’s national semifinal.
Nick Johnson scored 16 points to lead Arizona (33-5), which had three chances to win in the final 10 seconds, the final one coming after a lengthy replay review gave the ball to the Wildcats with 2.3 seconds left, only to have Johnson’s final shot come just after the buzzer. Kaleb Tarczewski chipped in 12 points and Aaron Gordon grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds for the Wildcats, who were trying to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2001.
The teams began overtime by exchanging 3-pointers by Ben Brust and Gordon, and short buckets by Kaminsky and Gordon before Kaminsky made a hook shot to put Wisconsin ahead with 2:20 remaining and later added a tip-in to make it 64-61 with 1:10 to go. The Wildcats trailed by one with the clock ticking down when T.J. McConnell missed a jumper and Johnson was called for an offensive foul for pushing off on a drive to the hoop, prior to the bizarre final sequence in which the replay review took approximately five minutes to determine which team touched the ball last near the sideline.
After missing his first eight field goals, Gordon made a reverse layup to tie the score at 52 with just over 2 1/2 minutes remaining in regulation before Jackson banked in a tough runner with his off-hand to put the Badgers ahead by two. Johnson forced a tough jumper on the other end that missed wide left, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson caught the ball in mid-air and dunked to tie the score with 34.2 seconds left, and Jackson missed a long jumper to send the game to overtime.
Florida 62, Dayton 52
Scottie Wilbekin scored 14 of his 23 points in the first half as the Gators upended the Flyers in the NCAA tournament South regional Saturday in Memphis, Tenn., to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2007.
Patric Young added 12 points and four blocked shots for top-seeded Florida (36-2), which advances to face Connecticut in the national semifinals. Michael Frazier II scored 10 points as the Gators stretched their school-record winning streak to 30.
Dyshawn Pierre scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half for 11th-seeded Dayton (26-11), which was trying to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1967. Devin Oliver added 12 points on four 3-pointers but the Flyers posted their lowest-scoring effort of the season.
The score was knotted at 23 15-plus minutes into the contest before the Gators took control with a 15-1 burst. Wilbekin scored nine points during the run and knocked down a 3-pointer with two seconds left to give Florida a 38-24 halftime lead.
The Gators stretched the lead to 53-36 on Young’s basket with 11:25 remaining and Dayton got back in the game with a 14-5 run over the ensuing 7 1/2 minutes to cut its deficit to 58-50. Wilbekin hit two free throws with 1:05 remaining and Florida finished off the victory after losing in the Elite Eight in each of the previous three seasons.