INDIANAPOLIS — As Kentucky knocked off three consecutive opponents from last year’s Final Four en route to the 16th Final Four in program history, the young Wildcats went through different stages of emotions after holding on for three close victories.
After Wichita State, it was relief.
Kentucky might have been the preseason No. 1 team in the country — with aspirations of a 40-0 season — but after beating a team that was still legitimately going for that undefeated mark in the 35-0 Shockers, the Wildcats felt like they finally began to live up to the enormous hype placed on them.
“It feels like five million pounds off your shoulders when the buzzer went off,” sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein said after the Round of 32 win in St. Louis. “It was just a good feeling. Everyone was yelling and super hype and it was just a good win.”
After Louisville, it was exhaustion.
The Sweet 16 game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday night was an emotional roller coaster for both rivals from the Bluegrass State. 35,000-plus screaming blue-and-red fans that ultimately helped the Wildcats knock off the defending national champions with a 74-69 victory.
Kentucky only led for 68 seconds of that win over Louisville and it felt like an old-school 15-round heavyweight fight.
“(Andrew Harrison) told us we were going to fight and win, that’s his two biggest words that I kept remembering coming out of his mouth,” freshman guard Dominique Hawkins said on Friday. “In the huddles and on the court. We were going to fight and win and find a way to win.”
After Michigan, it was excitement.
John Calipari’s team had run the gauntlet that was the Midwest Regional and made it out alive, cutting the nets down after Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three-pointer with 2.3 seconds remaining. The shot vaulted the Wildcats into a place nobody thought possible after a bad road loss to South Carolina: Arlington, Texas for the Final Four.
But for all of the excitement over this insanely talented group of players finally coming together, for Aaron Harrison’s clutch shooting in Indianapolis and for Marcus Lee’s surprise performance, Kentucky still has business they want to finish off heading into next weekend in North Texas.
Teams with talk of a 40-0 season don’t play for Final Fours, they play for national championships.
“Every team takes tough losses. Everybody (on our team) believes that we’re going to win. We’re in a war, still, so we have to keep on battling,” sophomore forward Alex Poythress said. “We never doubted ourselves.”
Others certainly had their doubts. As Kentucky struggled at times to mesh and play cohesively during the regular season many became vocal critics of a team filled with “one-and-done” players and McDonald’s All-Americans. But during this four-game run to the Final Four, different players have taken turns stepping up and making plays.
Kentucky has a toughness and cohesiveness about them we haven’t seen all season.
”I started reading what everybody was writing. I’m thinking, ‘this is going to be easy,'” Calipari said. “This was very difficult for all of us. It was difficult because my choice coaching them was to allow them the body language, the effort less than it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be, at times selfishness. And now I became a little mean because we had to get it changed.”
Aaron Harrison might be most remembered for his cold-blooded shooting — “Stone-cold killer right there,” Poythress said. — as he knocked in go-ahead three-pointers against both Louisville and Michigan in the final minute of play to help give Kentucky victories.
“I knew he was clutch, I didn’t know he was that clutch,” freshman center Dakari Johnson said.
Aaron’s twin brother Andrew has also stepped up his play throughout the tournament, playing through an injury that nearly kept him out of the Wichita State game and playing solid overall floor games on both ends of the floor throughout the tournament.
Julius Randle has four consecutive double-doubles to open the 2014 NCAA Tournament. His 24 double-doubles on the season make him second all-time in NCAA history for a freshman season behind only Michael Beasley’s 28.
James Young has been up-and-down at times, but his big shots down-the-stretch helped carry the Wildcats past Wichita State and he also had some momentum-killing three-pointers against Michigan.
And the “other” McDonald’s All-Americans — Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee — stepped up at various times throughout the tournament as well.
Even without Willie Cauley-Stein, who many view as a first-round pick, Kentucky was able to throw talented players on the floor to top Louisville and Michigan.
“It just shows how talented we are. We go eight (or) nine deep if we really need to. With having such great players it’s hard to play eight or nine people a game so sometimes Coach has to shorten his rotation,” Poythress said. “There were probably two or three people that could have stepped in this game that didn’t play (and made a difference). It just shows how talented we are and how we have great players here.”
But the focus continues to be on a title for the Wildcats. Although Kentucky can rest a bit easier knowing their Final Four destiny is fulfilled, they still have their eyes on the ultimate prize.
“I think this might be the sweetest [Final Four] of them all just because everyone was doubting us all year,” senior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We had a lot of low points to the season and no one really gave us a shot to be here. This honestly might be the sweetest one.”
Kentucky might not love playing with each other or ever really get a chance to be as great as they possibly could be, but in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats are talented enough to win the whole thing. And for the first time all season, they’ve come together. And at just the right time.
“This team came together so great, so fast,” Poythress said. “We’re all hanging out with each other and it’s just a family now. But we’re not done yet.”