Kentucky coulda/shoulda lost. But it didn’t, which says something

Aaron Harrison, Karl-Anthony Towns

Happiness mixed with heaping helpings of relief. (AP photo/Tony Dejak)

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.

Here, via myajc, is the Kentucky-Notre Dame game column.

Reader Comments 0

12 comments
Iluvnutella
Iluvnutella

The local interest story of Ga State notwithstanding, this has been a lackluster March Madness. It is more entertaining when at least 4 or 5 teams have a chance imho.

Calipari's mastering of the recruitment of one and done's has done more to diminish college hoops than anything else I can remember........Bah Humbug! 

LakeDawg
LakeDawg

I agree, Mark, that UK is more than just a collection of good players. They've come through in the clutch to beat some good teams. However, I just don't get all of this talk from the media about it would've been a "monumental" upset if ND had won. UK isn't a great team, despite their undefeated record. College basketball is down this year and it would not surprise me in the least if UK doesn't win it all. 

5150POAD
5150POAD

The Notre Dame coach not calling TOs to swap Offense for Defense like Kentucky was doing at the end could have been the difference. The best ND defender was on the bench with only 1 foul too much in the last 2 minutes. 

Mutley
Mutley

Kentucky did what great teams are supposed to do, they won despite the circumstances. If this had been UGA they would have fulfilled their role and folded like always. It's just destiny UGA has always and always will be just mediocre in all sports.

ImaNitwit
ImaNitwit

Before the game, the consensus of the "experts" was that KY would destroy ND. When KY is fortunate to win by 2 points, now the "experts" claim KY is great because they played a gritty, gutty game and refused to lose. Cracks me up.

Mulk
Mulk

@ImaNitwit


Hope you are not implying that Bark Madly is an "expert"?

GTBob
GTBob

Notre Dame played a much better game but choked at the end. Kentucky is beatable. If Notre Dame would have doubled on Towns every play then they probably would have won by a comfortable margin. Why they played man to man on him is a bit of a mystery. If the Kentucky team that played today plays the Wisconsin team that played today then they won't win. They have to improve.

Stingshuh?
Stingshuh?

@GTBob Agreed........the Towns kid killed them, not sure 2 would have stopped him?

ImaNitwit
ImaNitwit

@GTBob  Choked? Are you nuts? Perhaps the more talented team won?

GTBob
GTBob

@Stingshuh? They did a few times, and it worked. Including a late turnover that was pretty important. Nobody is better than a double team.

GTBob
GTBob

@ImaNitwit The more talented team did win, but Notre Dame folded under pressure. They weren't the same team when it got to about a 1:30 left. They got much less aggressive and much more tentative and basically abandoned their offensive game plan which was working nicely all game. They basically played like WVU at the end.