CRAWFORD | Escape against Notre Dame adds luster to Kentucky's perfection
Notre Dame is no upstart. The Fighting Irish finished 32-6.
"What a great college game," their coach Mike Brey said. "It was thrilling to be part of it. It lived up to the hype."
Some might say the game revealed vulnerability in Kentucky. They aren't wrong. But without vulnerability, there is no true strength. And without tests, a basketball team's season is less a march than a parade.
The parade portion of Kentucky's season is over. The last stages of the march began Saturday.
Notre Dame, a team that knew its limitations as well as its strengths, played about as well as it could play. It missed some free throws late. It missed open threes in the late stages. It couldn't guard Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns in the second half, because its best post player was in foul trouble and to double-team Towns was to give up possible three-pointers to the Wildcats.
Notre Dame chose its poison, and regardless of what anyone says, Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey chose wisely. He had a chance to beat Kentucky in the final, classic minutes.
Instead, this is what happened:
Aaron Harrison gave Kentucky the lead, 64-63, with 3:15 left in the game with a long three from the right wing. It was Kentucky's first lead since early in the second half and harkened back to Harrison's NCAA Tournament heroics of a year ago. There may be no Wildcat in history who has made more big NCAA Tournament shots. And that's saying something.
“Aaron did what Aaron does,” Calipari said later.
And Notre Dame's Jerian Grant does what he does. On the next possession for the Irish, at the end of the shot clock he drained his own three-pointer, from just as deep, to put Notre Dame up two, 66-64, with 2:35 left.
Then Notre Dame came up with a turnover by Andrew Harrison. The Irish had the ball and the lead with 1:59 left. With 1:25 left, Grant forced a jumper that was a bit out of control, and Aaron Harrison grabbed the rebound.
On the other end, UK did as it had done the entire second half. It gave the ball to freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, who backed in and scored over Zach Auguste to tie the game with just 1:12 left.
Notre Dame brought the ball down. Grant took possession and dribbled down the shot clock. His signature move in these cases is a step-back dagger. Brey had told Grant he wanted him to get to the rim if he could. But standing in his way was Kentucky 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein.
And Cauley-Stein was about to make the biggest play of the game, the biggest play of his career, and in fact, one of the biggest plays in Kentucky basketball's storied history; that is, if you think preserving UK's unbeaten season is a big deal.
Grant took a jab step toward Cauley-Stein, then faded back for a three-pointer.
Cauley-Stein skied, and got a piece of it.
“He hit me with a couple (of step-backs) early in the game, and I was just like, ‘Dude, I don't know how to guard this,'” Cauley-Stein said afterward. He agreed that his game-winner was the biggest block of his career, saying, “. . . If I didn't block it, he probably would have made it. Dude's cold."
The ball was batted around and out of bounds, the shot clock appeared to expire, and there was confusion. Officials gave Notre Dame one more second, but again, Cauley-Stein was in the way. The Irish couldn't get a shot off.
Shot-clock violation. It was their only turnover of the second half.
Kentucky took possession with 34 seconds left. After a timeout, Andrew Harrison took the ball. He had a “three read.” He would draw the defense and look for Cauley-Stein for a lob. If it wasn't there, Towns would read it and cut to the basket. If that wasn't there, Harrison would drive and pull up for a jumper. The lob was taken away. Towns couldn't get free. Harrison drove and collided with Notre Dame point guard Demetrius Jackson, and a block was called.
“We had some stuff working on the back side,” Calipari said. “I said, if you don't have it, you've got stuff behind. We had something for Willie over the top. But he drove in and he got it, he got fouled.”
The sophomore stepped to the line, as he often pretended to do — as we all probably pretended to do when we were kids — in his family's driveway in Texas.
“But when you get that opportunity in real life,” Harrison said. “It's a blessing.”
He blessed the Wildcats with two made free throws.
Notre Dame still had six seconds. Grant took the inbounds pass and sprinted down the left side of the court. Cauley-Stein dogged him the whole way. But as Grant dribbled into the corner, the video shows Cauley-Stein backing off of him and Andrew Harrison, who had been sprinting behind him, launch to contest Grant's desperation three-pointer just before he shot it. Trey Lyles was a split second behind Harrison, also in the air contesting as he released. The ball sailed over the rim and the game ended.
The players, it turns out, came crashing down on top of Dr. Victoria Graff, a Lexington audiologist who has been photographing UK football and basketball as a free-lancer for various organizations for years. She didn't get the final shot. What she got was Grant and Harrison tumbling over her. There was commotion. She didn't get the shot. What she did get was a memory.
“I didn't know whether the shot went in or not,” she said after the game. “Then I saw all the Kentucky players hugging each other.”
The Wildcats cut down the nets. They should have cut down the nets. This victory is worth remembering. With the celebration over, the numbers could be viewed without the adrenaline of emotion.
Cauley-Stein missed a tip-in with 12:05 left. Kentucky didn't miss another shot. That's how sharp the Wildcats were, how sharp they had to be. They made their final nine shots over the game's final 10:24. You can't be much better than perfect.
There was a lob dunk by Cauley-Stein and a layup by Lyles. Then back-to-back backdown baskets by Towns. Brey decided on the next trip he had to double the UK freshman. Lyles fired the ball to point guard Tyler Ulis on the right wing for a three. No more double-teams.
“We felt we could absorb two point shots from their bigs. Towns was fabulous,” Brey said. “Our two big guys, God bless them, they were on their own most of the night. The one time I go zone, Booker hits a three, and the one time we tell to help a little bit, Ulis hits a three. So now you're like, the rest of the game, fellas, you're on your own, we've got to hug these guys because I think we can absorb twos. I love how we battled on the board against their size.”
Notre Dame could absorb twos, but only if it was scoring. And like so many other UK opponents, it couldn't get anything going consistently in the closing minutes. After making four straight shots — two layups by Auguste, two threes by Steve Vasturia and the long one by Grant — Notre Dame did not score in the final 2:35 and missed all three of its shots.
It was the only time in the second half that UK got stops on three consecutive possessions. What motivated that defense? “Desperation, probably,” Andrew Harrison said. “We had no choice or we were going to lose.”
“We got a little stagnant offensively, but it's easy to get stagnant against that length,” Brey said. “It takes its toll on you at times, but I'm proud of our group, man. We emptied the tank tonight, and that's all I asked them to do before the game.”
Towns, who said on Thursday “my greatest joy” is earning one more chance to play with his current UK teammates, was the one player for whom Notre Dame had no answer. After Auguste got into foul trouble, UK got him the ball, and he scored. Towns finished with a career-high 25 points. He made 10 of 13 shots.
Credit Calipari and his staff. All too often, you see teams forget about their best player for long stretches of the game. With the game on the line Saturday, Kentucky came down the court with one purpose — get the ball to Towns.
Calipari consistently makes the simple but absolutely necessary moves to get his team to victory. He rarely gets enough credit for it.
“We knew we were going to throw to the post every chance we could, and they were just physical enough to cause us to miss 10 one-footers in the first half,” Calipari said. “. . . (Towns) was unbelievable, and my staff was telling me, take him out, he's not guarding. I was like, he's the only guy scoring, I've got to leave him in.”
“We didn't play that well,” Aaron Harrison said.
If and when the coaches and team watch a replay of this one, I think they'll find that they played pretty darn well, especially when it counted the most. You can't be much better than perfect down the stretch offensively. And Notre Dame proved its worth on offense against the nation's best defense.
I've already heard the chorus, “UK was mediocre.” Let me say, mediocre teams don't shoot 75 percent in the second half. They don't shoot 50 percent from the three-point line and 53.2 percent in the game. Mediocre basketball doesn't yield nine blocked shots. Give Notre Dame the credit it is due.
What Kentucky does is wear you down, with its depth, and with its height. And in a game like this, it forces you to make an extraordinary play. If you make it, you win. So far, no one has made it.
“You can look back on every little thing,” Notre Dame's Pat Connaugton said. “You can look back on threes that I missed, you can look back on free throws. You can nitpick the whole game but at the end of the day, that's basketball — that's sports. That is why we get that rush from it and why you live and die with it. . . . And don't forget. That's a great basketball team.”
Yeah, we're starting to get that notion.
UK trailed by six, 59-53, with 6:10 to go in the game. It was the largest deficit of the tournament for the Wildcats, and the most they have trailed by late in the game this season. The last time they trailed in the second half at all was at 62-60 with 4:46 left in the game at Georgia.
The Wildcats are headed to their 17th Final Four, and their fourth in five years under Calipari, who is 22-3 in NCAA Tournament games as UK's coach.
But trailing late, Cauley-Stein said he wasn't thinking about losing.
“Everybody else was thinking, ‘What if they lose,'” Cauley-Stein said. “I was just thinking, we're supposed to win. The outlook was bleak, and then I looked at the clock and there were six, seven minutes left. And you realize how much time is left. This is what we do. We expect to make the plays that win games.”
And they do. Calipari didn't load his team up with a lot of scouting. And it showed at times. What he has given them is a great deal of confidence, and a tremendous will to compete and win.
“My mind is never on ‘we may lose,'” Calipari said. “My whole mindset, all the time, is how are we going to win? How do we win this game? That's all I keep saying to myself. I never want us playing not to lose . . . We're undefeated, but we're not perfect. I mean, we showed that tonight. We're really young and it showed tonight a ton. We had some turnovers that were like, ‘What did you just do? You just threw them the ball.' . . . But that being said, you still have a will to win. I'll tell you, if people don't realize, Andrew and Aaron still drive this team. Willie does his thing. Karl was tremendous today. But those two kids drive this team. Tyler comes in. Devin comes in. Those other two, they drove us last year to the final game, and they're doing the same thing this year . . . Notre Dame came right after us. They weren't afraid. They were confident. We made some plays down the stretch, if we don't make them, they're going to Indy and we're going home.”
They made them. On your way to One Shining Moment, you have to pass through some fire. The unbeaten Wildcats now have passed through some. There are more tests to come. But what fire doesn't destroy, it refines.
Kentucky is 38-0, and that record has a bit more luster this morning.
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