Andrew Harrison hit a pair of free throws with 6.0 seconds left, and a potential game-winning three from Jerian Grant floated just long, as No. 1 Kentucky advanced to the Final Four with their unbeaten season intact. The Wildcats No. 3 Notre Dame, 68-66, in the Midwest Regional Final.
Karl Anthony-Towns led the way for the Wildcats, overpowering Notre Dame’s smaller front line to the tune of 25 points, five boards and four assists despite the fact that he spent much of the game in foul trouble. He was Kentucky’s horse down the stretch, as the Wildcats force-fed the big fella the ball on every possession in the final minutes. His size was too much for Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste, who picked up four fouls while trying to slow Towns down.
The Wildcats struggled for much of the night, but that credit should be given to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish did what they have done all season long: they spread the floor with shooters and attacked the middle of the floor, where Kentucky was hesitant to help off of Notre Dame’s marksmen.
“We didn’t play very well and Notre Dame, I thought, controlled the whole thing,” head coach John Calipari said in the postgame interview on TBS. “But we made the plays. We figure out a way to win it.”
They certainly did. Kentucky didn’t miss in the final 12:16, hitting their final nine shots from the floor. Towns was 4-for-4 during that stretch, assisting on a three from Tyler Ulis that was arguably the biggest shot of the game; Notre Dame had just opened up a 59-53 lead, their biggest of the game.
The biggest play of the game was made by Willie Cauley-Stein, however. The Wildcats had been struggling with their ball-screen defense all night long, a major reason why they allowed Zach Auguste to go for 20 points and why the much, much bigger Wildcats gave up 20 dunks and layups on the night. With the scored tied and a little more than 30 seconds left on the clock, Cauley-Stein switched onto Grant, who tried a step-back three over the 7-footers outstretched arms.
It was blocked.
Harrison would make his two free throws at the other end of the floor, and on the ensuing possession, Cauley-Stein chased him the length of the floor and into the corner, where his prayer went long:
If Kentucky has proven anything this season, it’s that they are not afraid of the moment. They are poised in crunch time, and they’ve executed under the pressure that perfection brings ever since they were taken to overtime in their first two SEC games.
“I did,” Cauley-Stein told reporters when asked if he ever felt sunk, according to Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal. “And then I realized there was 7 minutes left, and I was like, ‘There’s 7 minutes left. This is what we do.'”
And believe it or not, they may actually be getting their biggest test next.
Kentucky will advance to face Wisconsin a week from Saturday in the Final Four. It’s their fourth trip to the Final Four in the last five seasons, a phenomenal stat in any era, let alone the one and done era. Calipari can be criticized for a lot of things. Understanding how to maximize this Kentucky program in this day and age is not one of them.