ARLINGTON, Texas — Maybe it had to end this way. Nearly every other game in this NCAA basketball tournament has for Kentucky.
With 5.7 seconds left in the Wildcats’ Final Four semifinal game with Wisconsin inside AT&T Stadium, and trailing the Badgers by two points, Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison rose from the left wing and drilled a nerveless 3-point shot to put the Wildcats in front 74-73.
When the Badgers’ Traevon Jackson misfired on a jumper at the horn, UK moved into Monday night’s championship game against Connecticut, which defeated top-ranked Florida 63-53 in the opening game of the night.
It was the third straight game that Harrison had handed his teammates a lead in the final seconds, having driven similar daggers into the hearts of Louisville and Michigan to capture the Midwest Regional.
“Now go hug your mom and dad,” winning coach John Calipari said to Harrison, whose twin brother Andrew is UK’s point guard. “What a game. One of those games where whoever had the ball last with a good shot was going to win.”
Kentucky scored first on a James Young 3-pointer, much as Florida had bagged a triple to open its eventual loss to Connecticut in the other semifinal.
Yet unlike the Gators’ early 12-point lead, UK-Wisconsin was a back-and-forth, up-and-down game worthy of both programs’ overcharged fan bases.
The Badgers did jump in front by nine following a technical foul on the Cats’ Dakari Johnson for shoving Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, but UK steadied down the stretch of the first 20 minutes, pulling within 40-36 at the break.
Anyone looking for similarities between Florida’s loss and Kentucky’s halftime deficit had at least two. Just as UConn held a 4-1 edge in 3-pointers at intermission, so did the Badgers. Andrew Harrison also was struggling, much as UK quarterback Scottie Wilbekin had against the Huskies.
But in other areas Kentucky was doing what it had throughout the tournament. It held a five-rebound cushion (17-12) and had shot far better from the field (54 percent to 41), much to the delight of the blue-clad portion of the 79,444 crammed inside AT&T Stadium, the largest crowd ever to watch a Final Four game.
Continuing to pound the boards early in the final period, the Wildcats took a 45-43 lead less than three minutes into the period on a 3-point play by Dakari Johnson. A tip-in by Alex Poythress moved UK in front 47-43, capping an 11-0 UK run. When Marcus Lee followed that with a tip-in dunk and James Young added two free throws, the run was 15-zip and Big Blue led 51-43, its largest lead of the night.
Then it was Wisconsin’s turn to rally. The Badgers strung together a 13-4 surge of their own, keyed by three 3-pointers to lead 56-55 with 11:30 to go. That made Wisconsin up 8-1 in triples, a gap of 21 points.
And although the Wildcats hung close much of the rest of the way, they never could shut down the Badgers’ swing offense for any length of time.
The Cats spent the last 10 minutes of the game playing from behind, Wisconsin running at least 30 seconds off the 35-second shot clock with each possession.
But with 3:48 to play, UK freshman Julius Randle, a Dallas native, hit two free throws to tie the game at 69. Then the Badgers turned it over on consecutive possessions and an alley-oop to Poythress returned the lead to Kentucky at 71-69.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...