INDIANAPOLIS — Before the season, Kentucky — the No. 1 team in America in the preseason — was expected to advance to its 16th Final Four in program history.
With a loaded roster that included seven McDonald’s All-Americans and potential NBA players coming off of the bench, many believed Kentucky would coast to its third Final Four in the last four years and ludicrous talk of a 40-0 season was even present.
But John Calipari’s young team had many bumps in the road, and after a 24-10 regular season, the Wildcats entered the Midwest Regional as the No. 8 seed. Kentucky peaked at the right time, however, as the Wildcats knocked off their third consecutive team from last season’s Final Four with a thrilling 75-72 win over No. 2 seed Michigan on Sunday in the Elite 8 of the Midwest Regional.
With the game tied 72-72 with 27 seconds left, Kentucky went to Aaron Harrison for the game’s deciding bucket as the freshman shooting guard nailed a contested three-pointer from the left wing with 2.3 seconds left to give the Wildcats the 75-72 lead. After a timeout, Michigan’s Nik Stauskas (24 points) missed a three-pointer near the time line as Kentucky mobbed each other at center court.
A massive weight had been lifted off the Wildcats’ chest.
“I wasn’t really there for my team in the first half and I knew I had to knock down some shots at the end and that’s what I did,” Harrison said after the game.
Scoreless in the first half, Harrison knocked down four three-pointers in the second half to help send Kentucky to the Final Four for the third time in the last four seasons under Calipari.
After an entertaining 37-37 first half, Kentucky started the second half on an 8-2 run before the Wolverines hit some shots and got back in the game to take a 55-53 lead with 10:52 left. But the Wildcats made a strong final push — as they have all tournament long — and didn’t trail for the final 8:52 of the game.
Freshman forward Julius Randle recorded his fourth consecutive double-double of the 2014 NCAA Tournament with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Wing James Young knocked in multiple clutch — and Michigan momentum-killing — three-pointers to finish with 13 points while Lee came off the bench to score 10 points and grab eight rebounds after scoring nine points total in all of 2014.
Despite struggling to hit shots for much of the game, Andrew Harrison finished with eight points, six assists and three rebounds for the Wildcats.
Kentucky (28-10) bested No. 9 seed Kansas State, 56-49, previously-undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State, 78-76, and No. 4 seed and last year’s NCAA champion Louisville, 74-69 before Sunday’s win to reach the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
In a season in which the headlines were dominated by a strong freshmen class, Kentucky’s elite group of first-year players — headlined by six McDonald’s All-Americans — are the only ones left standing after Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker didn’t make it out of the first weekend of games.
The Wildcats started five freshmen again on Sunday and two other freshmen — forward Marcus Lee and point guard Dominique Hawkins — came off the bench to provide a key lift for Kentucky.
Kentucky’s freshmen seem to be coming together on both ends of the floor at just the right time and many people would say they’re the most talented team in the Final Four, despite losing three times this season to No. 1 overall seed Florida — a fellow SEC Final Four team.
The Wolverines (28-9) finish this season coming up just short of a second consecutive Final Four. Stauskas led all scorers with 24 points while sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III added 14 points. Battling foul trouble for much of the game, senior center Jordan Morgan finished with 11 points for Michigan.
No. 8 seed Kentucky moves on to face No. 2 seed Wisconsin, the winner of the West Regional.