Cleveland — This had all the ingredients of a historic upset. Notre Dame stayed close early, pulled ahead in the second half and was positioned to spring the biggest shocker the sport has seen since Duke toppled undefeated UNLV in 1991. The Irish were the better team for most of the night, leading for 21:51 to its opponent’s 11:42.
But Kentucky led at the end.
Kentucky, which trailed by six points with six minutes remaining and by two inside the final 75 seconds. Kentucky, which would have seen its glorious season tossed on the dustbin of history had it failed here. Kentucky, which even Andrew Harrison admitted was driven by “desperation” in the final minutes Saturday.
Kentucky could have lost, maybe should have lost. It won 68-66.
It won because Karl-Anthony Towns, scored 25 points on 13 shots. It won because Aaron Harrison, who spent last season’s NCAA tournament making game-winners, made a trey with three minutes remaining to put the Wildcats ahead for the first time in 12 minutes.
It won because Willie Cauley-Stein blocked Jerian Grant’s 3-point try with 34 seconds remaining and ran downcourt with the fleet guard to induce an air ball on the game’s final shot. It won because Andrew Harrison, Aaron’s twin, drove into the Notre Dame defense and got fouled and made the winning free throws with six seconds left. It won, somehow, won on a night when losing seemed the more likely outcome.
“My mind is never on, ‘We may lose,’ ” Kentucky coach John Caliparis said. “We’re not playing not to lose. I was trying every combination I had just to stay in the game.”
Then this: “I know that (his players will) make plays. It’s a matter of keeping us close enough for it to matter.”
When Steve Vasturia’s transition 3-pointer gave Notre Dame a 59-53 lead, the Wildcats looked almost done. Calipari called timeout and shrugged. Then tiny reserve Tyler Ulis nailed a life-giving trey from the corner, and the comeback was afoot. The Irish didn’t go away quickly, holding the lead for another three minutes, and with 2:35 left a Grant 3-pointer at the shot-clock horn put them back ahead.
But here’s the thing: Notre Dame, the best offensive team in the land, could manage only seven points over the final six minutes; Kentucky scored 15. In the same sort of frenzied game in the 1991 Final Four, unbeaten Vegas wilted against Duke. Kentucky steeled itself and won.
“We’re not perfect,” Calipari said, “but we’re undefeated.”
Undefeated still. Undefeated after trailing more than half the game against a dauntless ACC champion. Notre Dame had the Wildcats where it wanted, and it wasn’t enough. And if nothing else, we learned this:
Kentucky might well lose in the Final Four, but it will not choke.