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Aaron Harrison hit the critical shot, but don’t ignore Alex Poythress’ contributions

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ARLINGTON, Texas — With 5.7 seconds remaining Saturday night Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison added another critical shot to his NCAA tournament resume, hitting the three-pointer that gave the Wildcats the 74-73 win over No. 2 Wisconsin. Harrison didn’t shoot particularly well, making three of his eight attempts on the night, but he made the big one and as a result Kentucky will play for a national title for the second time in three years.

But if not for a player who could best be described as enigmatic over his two seasons in Lexington, there’s a chance that John Calipari’s team isn’t in this spot.

Alex Poythress has been, at times, a maddening player to observe. While the physical tools are there, as evidenced by his being a McDonald’s All-American out of high school, the “fire” needed to be a dominant player isn’t always present. However during the NCAA tournament Poythress has been a key reserve for Kentucky, and that was once again the case in the second half against Wisconsin.

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Poythress scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in the second half, finishing the game with eight points and seven rebounds. The numbers by themselves aren’t particularly impressive, but the combination of production and activity helped Kentucky get in position to win the game in the final seconds. After being an inconsistent player for much of the season, Poythress has stepped forward during the NCAA tournament.

“I think one, Marcus Lee kind of woke him up,” Calipari said of Poythress following the win. “Like, ‘if Marcus Lee can do that, I can do that.’ Everyone on this team is waiting for him to break out like he did and like he is now.”

In five NCAA tournament games Poythress hasn’t received a high number of scoring opportunities, and that isn’t a surprise given the fact that he’s averaging 5.9 points per game on the season. But he’s done well with the opportunities he’s earned during the tournament, shooting 13-for-17 from the field (he hasn’t missed a shot since the Wichita State game) and averaging 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per contest.

“He’s in the best shape of his life,” Calipari noted. “Mentally, he’s in a great place mentally. He’s playing fearless and he’s just almost reckless, which is great for him because of his athleticism. I texted him before because I had a bunch of my friends say he’s going to have a big game. I texted him, ‘this is what they’re saying, man, I love you.’

“He said, ‘I love you, coach, let’s go have some fun.’ And he went out there and played great.”

Much has been made about whatever “tweaks” Calipari has executed over the last month, with many wondering what exactly those “tweaks” are. But for all the conversation about that aspect of Kentucky’s turnaround, the fact of the matter is that multiple players who struggled at various points in the season are now stepping forward and playing with confidence. Both Harrisons entered the SEC tournament struggling offensively, Lee rarely played and Poythress was inconsistent in the aggression he was playing with.

That all has changed, with a better understanding of what’s expected of them individually helping the team reach the game many expected them play in back in October. The journey certainly hasn’t been as smooth as anticipated, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that a team full of underclassmen would hit some bumps in the road.

Ultimately what matters is how a team responds. After struggling with the next step at times this season, Kentucky’s done a far better job of dealing with tough situations in March and as a result they’re one win away from the program’s ninth national title. And Poythress’ career to date has been a microcosm of this, and over the last three weeks he’s done a better job of simply competing. With that being the case, a sophomore who many felt capable of flipping the switch has played a valuable role in Kentucky’s late-season run.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.