NEWARK, N.J. — John Calipari has restored the roar at Kentucky, leading the Wildcats back to the Final Four after a 13-year absence.
Brandon Knight scored 22 points and the fourth-seeded Wildcats are headed back to college basketball’s biggest stage following a 76-69 win over second-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in the East Regional final.
The Wildcats (29-8) will play Connecticut in Houston on Saturday night after turning back a late surge by the Tar Heels (27-10), who erased an 11-point deficit before running out of gas in the final 2 minutes.
DeAndre Liggins added 12 points for Kentucky, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 37 seconds remaining to help lift the Wildcats to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
That’s hardly a lengthy drought in most places. At Kentucky it’s a lifetime.
A season after falling a game short of the Final Four behind a roster filled with future NBA stars, the Wildcats are heading to the national semifinals for 14th time behind the heady play of Knight and the emotional leadership of senior center Josh Harrellson.
Harrellson again held his own against North Carolina’s bigger, more heralded front line, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 21 points and nine rebounds, but the Tar Heels fell behind early and struggled to keep the hot-shooting Wildcats in check.
Harrellson gave teammate Eloy Vargas a bear hug shortly after the buzzer sounded then gleefully cut down the nets while the Tar Heels trudged slowly off the floor.
It’s a scene the program has been waiting 13 years to celebrate, a mission that began in earnest when the program lured Calipari away from Memphis in 2009.
He promised he wasn’t “the grand poobah” the day he signed his eight-year, $31.65 million contract, but there’s little doubt who rules the Bluegrass now.
Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only men’s coaches to lead three different programs to the Final Four. Calipari’s previous visits at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 were vacated by the NCAA for rules violations, but Calipari was not found liable in either instance.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Calipari wanted his Final Four appearances with the Wildcats “to stick.” Time will tell if they do, but he’s already restored the luster to college basketball’s all-time winningest program.
The win also gives a Final Four littered with relative newcomers a hint of aristocracy, though with a twist.
Kentucky’s win means the Final Four will go on without a No. 1 or No. 2 seed since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.