Another clutch shot, another dog pile, another devastated opponent. And Kentucky will play another game, this time for the national championship.
The Wildcats found yet another way to win an NCAA tournament game Saturday night in Arlington, surviving a performance that saw the Harrison twins go practically silent. And yet, they were there when Kentucky needed them the most in a 74-73 win over Wisconsin.
Andrew, whose ill-advised brick and subsequent foul had opened the door for the Badgers, drove the baseline inside the game’s final 15 seconds. He went airborne with few options, but suddenly found Dakari Johnson, who at first bobbled the ball, then returned the ball to Andrew.
After one dribble, he tossed the ball to his brother, the same guy who received his handoff in the last glorious seconds of the Michigan game. Standing closer to the sideline at AT&T Stadium than he was the three-point arc, Aaron launched.
The shot was so long, it took 1.5 seconds to leave Harrison’s hand and nestle into the basket. Onions. Dagger. Ballgame.
Wisconsin got off a decent shot, Traevon Jackson missing at the buzzer. It was Jackson who had given his team a two-point lead by draining two of three free throws with 15 seconds remaining. Jackson, with the shot clock expiring, had coaxed Andrew into the air and then threw himself into his defender, one of the oldest basketball tricks in the book, a veteran move by a veteran player.
As ex-Wildcat Rex Chapman pointed out on the TNT “Teamcast,” it would have been “play on” at the next level, where Jackson and Andrew Harrison just might meet up again some day. But on this night in North Texas, it was a foul. Three shots.
Fortunately for the Big Blue Nation, Jackson missed the first. It wound up being the difference in the game.
Aaron Harrison’s gutsy trey, his only three-point bucket of the night, capped off an eight-point effort; his brother had just nine. But the Wildcats had found another way to stay close until Aaron’s shining moment.
Dallas native Julius Randle had said he didn’t care if they played the Final Four “on the moon,” but he performed in his own back yard as though he owned the place, finishing with 16 points, five rebounds and one turned ankle. James Young, struggling down the regular season stretch, keeps cranking out NCAA tournament gems. He poured in a game-high 17, with five rebounds. Dakari Johnson went for 10 and seven in just 18 minutes.
And then there was Alex Poythress.
John Calipari had predicted from the podium on Thursday that if Kentucky went on to do anything special this weekend, we would be talking about Poythress. And we are.
Poythress scored just eight points but didn’t miss a shot in four attempts, an assortment of you-can’t-touch-me dunks, layups and putbacks. He also grabbed seven rebounds and helped trigger a 15-0 Kentucky run early in the second half.
Of course, Wisconsin answered with a 15-4 run of its own but the Wildcats had established the fact that Wisconsin would not make the game’s momentum its own personal plaything.
Even when the Badgers eased out to a 67-62 lead with 6:17 left, you got the feeling that if the Wildcats could get stops, Wisconsin could no more hold off Kentucky than Jerry Jones could shun the spotlight.
In the next four minutes, the Cats would outscore the Badgers 9-2 and take a 71-69 lead.
That was when Wisconsin took a rare bad shot, Sam Dekker rushing a try for three. Poythress (natch) pulled down the rebound but at the other end, Andrew missed a jumper.
Back came Wisconsin; Jackson missed a jumper but there was Frank Kaminsky with the rebound. Up until that point, Kaminsky’s chief highlight had been engaging Johnson in a first-half battle for a rebound after a whistle had blown the play dead. Johnson wound up being slapped with a technical foul.
Now Kaminsky made a more tangible contribution; his putback tied the game at 71. The Wildcats came down the court, in search of a well-crafted shot.
Instead, Andrew Harrison launched a quick try for three and barely drew iron, then fouled Jackson at the other end, setting the stage for the two go-ahead free throws.
Now it was Kentucky’s turn and for whatever reason, Wisconsin gave Aaron Harrison room to shoot, even if it was from about five feet short of the arc. And when the ball left his hand, it looked as though it was drifting left and that it might come down to whoever could grab the rebound.
But it didn’t.
And now, the man who has buried three of the biggest post-season shots in the history of a program over-loaded with heroes looks like a prophet.
The Wildcats, Aaron Harrison assured us, would write the ending to the story of this year’s season. And it would be a happy one.
Incredibly, he said it after the loss at South Carolina, the lowest point of the season.
And now, he and his teammates are 40 minutes from a national championship.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)