ARLINGTON, Texas – Freshmen. A topic talked about to the point of exhaustion when uttered in the same sentence as Kentucky. And to a point, with good reason. The Wildcats routinely start five of them.
One of them continues to stand out above the rest, if not for his total stat line, then for his prowess to continually hit big shots. It was just six days ago that Aaron Harrison hit a 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds left to beat Michigan in the Elite Eight. Saturday night at AT&T Stadium, in front of an NCAA-record 79,444 fans, it was the same Harrison twin with another deep 3-pointer beating another Big Ten team. This time it came with 5.7 seconds left to give Kentucky a 74-73 win against Wisconsin.
And he hit it from Dallas.
“It was a great shot,” Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker said.
“Aaron has been doing that all tournament -- he's got that clutch gene. You have to tip your cap when credit is due. He came through big for his team and put them ahead.”
It was remarkable. Almost an instant replay but with a slight twist. A week ago, UK hoisted 11 from beyond the arc, hitting seven of them. But they came in Saturday night with a different game plan: pound the paint.
Harrison’s 3-pointer was only the fifth attempt by the Wildcats. They made their first of the night on the opening possession of the game. And the only other they made? Harrison’s.
Harrison is 3-for-3 on game-tying or go-ahead 3-pointers in the final minute of NCAA tournament games. What makes it even more remarkable is that he didn’t have one of those attempts during the regular season.
For the first 59 minutes and change, the Wildcats didn’t need the 3-ball. Kentucky’s big freshmen frontcourt of Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson combined to go 10-for-16 from the floor and the Wildcats grabbed 11 offensive rebounds. UK outrebounded Wisconsin 32-27 but that’s a bit deceiving. It was a lot worse than that for a while.
“It's just very difficult to try when they're putting their heads down or they're driving in there as hard as they can, and we're trying to get our bodies in front,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said of Kentucky’s inside play. “Then it always comes down to interpretation. But the problem is, after we're displaced or we're moved out of position, we can't get to a block out position like we normally do, so then that's how they got the second-chance points.”
Ryan and the Badgers had the Wildcats right where they wanted.
“They usually get about five 3s a game,” Ryan said. “We were hoping to end the game with them only making one 3. But they ended up getting two and that ended up being the one 3 they needed.”
For a while, it seemed as if a freshman on the other bench was going to will his team into the national championship game. Bronson Koenig scored 11 first-half points while hitting four of his first five shots to help the Badgers build a 40-36 halftime lead. Koenig had nine points more than Frank Kaminsky and eight more than Traevon Jackson at the break.
Not bad for a guy who averaged only 3.3 points per game and had only reached double digits three times before Saturday. The only problem is he finished with 11. Kentucky figured out him Koenig.
Wouldn’t that have been the ultimate taste of Calipari’s own medicine? A freshman on a team full of veterans beating the best crop of freshmen this sport has ever seen? Think about it this way: Kentucky started one more freshman Saturday night than Bo Ryan has started in 13 years at Wisconsin. It’s a contrast of styles, a contrast of ways of life. It just wasn’t meant to be for the Badgers. The Wildcats figured out ways to stop the Badgers’ offense just enough. The surgical-like cuts and the screens set by everyone on the floor kept UW in the game.
What was Kentucky’s answer to the bruising Badgers? Crash the glass. The Wildcats have found ways to stay in games by scoring on ridiculous not-meant-to-be alley-oops -- or as some around here have called them “alley-oopsies.” Add to that list Harrison’s final shot -- a 26-foot 3-pointer with plenty of time left on the clock, with his team trailing by two points. They were only in that spot because of Andrew’s twin brother Aaron who fouled Jackson on a wild 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 15 seconds of game time remaining. It’s what gave Wisconsin the lead when Jackson hit two of the three free throws.
Live with the freshmen, die with the freshmen. It’s Kentucky’s way -- and on this night in Arlington the magic ride continued for coach Cal’s young guns. Kentucky is the second team to win four consecutive games in an NCAA tournament after trailing at halftime in each of them (Kansas, 2012).
“When we get down 10, it's amazing how we play,” Calipari said.” We're not real good up 10, but for some reason, down 10, they grow hair on their neck. And all of a sudden they're like, ‘Who are these guys?’ Late in the game, they have an unbelievable will to win.”
UK got 66 points from its freshmen on Saturday -- the most by any team in a Final Four game since the original Fab Five, when Michigan did so in 1992 with 61. Don’t ask how or why. It’s Kentucky’s way. As Ryan said on Friday, every coach does it his way, just like Frank Sinatra told us many years ago.
Now, Kentucky -- after winning the 2012 national championship -- takes an 11-game NCAA tournament winning streak into Monday night’s national championship contest against UConn. The Wildcats’ last loss in the tournament was a loss at the hands of UConn in the 2011 Final Four.
These freshmen were only sophomores in high school then. Kentucky’s way has worked. And Cal just needs one more win to justify his way one more time.