INDIANAPOLIS — Go back to last April when the first preseason projections came out, unanimously anointing the Kentucky Wildcats No. 1 before most of their players had ever been in a college game. Go back to October when John Calipari came out at Midnight Madness and proclaimed, "Kentucky is college basketball."
All along, the end result of this Kentucky season was supposed to be the Final Four and perhaps a national championship for a recruiting class hailed as perhaps the best in history.
But somewhere along the way, the Wildcats became underdogs, almost afterthoughts, tumbling out of the top 25 right before the NCAA tournament began. For these Wildcats, though, fulfilling their destiny was only a matter of time — most of all, whether they'd have enough of it.
And now, after beating No. 2 seed Michigan 75-72 in the Midwest Region final on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, they'll get at least one more week. For the third time in five seasons since Calipari became head coach, Kentucky is headed to the Final Four, where it will face Wisconsin next Saturday in the national semifinals.
In a furious finish that saw momentum swing both ways in the final few minutes, it was freshman guard Aaron Harrison delivering one of the great shots in program history, draining a three-pointer from the left wing over the outstretched arm of Caris LeVert with 2.3 seconds remaining, ending a game that once seemed destined for overtime.
"That stage, that atmosphere, that game, to make that shot to send us to the Final Four" freshman forward Julius Randle said, "it was just amazing."
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BOX SCORE: Kentucky 75, Michigan 72
As Michigan's Nik Stauskas missed a heave from halfcourt at the buzzer, the Wildcats dogpiled in celebration of an achievement that seemed preordained and entirely unlikely all at the same time.
Less than a month ago, Kentucky lost to woeful South Carolina, dropping to 21-8 and looking like a dysfunctional mess, not a powerful championship contender with eight McDonald's All-Americans.
But somehow, the light came on for the Wildcats at the SEC tournament, as they demolished LSU and Georgia, losing 61-60 to No. 1 Florida in the championship game.
"Every year it's a process," Calipari said. "Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out. It's not all them. They were trying. Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, all that stuff. When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier."
Though Kentucky was clearly coming together at the right time, enough damage had been done to earn a No. 8 seed and a tough road to Dallas that would eventually include three of last year's Final Four participants.
One by one, the Wildcats took them down, following the same script each time: Fall behind by double-digits early, claw back into the game, then make clutch shots and timely plays down the stretch. In the end Kentucky took down No. 1 seed Wichita State, No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 2 Michigan by a combined 10 points, each game coming down to the final seconds.
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"We all came in with high expectations," freshman center Dakari Johnson said. "But after we started losing games, I think that taught us a valuable lesson that we can't coast. We have to compete for 40 minutes."
Kentucky never strayed from its new identity against Michigan, despite falling behind 32-22 late in the first half and struggling to defend the Wolverines' complex ball-screen offense.
But Kentucky, which had a significant size advantage over Michigan in the post, kept feeding the ball inside and pounding the offensive glass, taking a 45-39 lead with 17:18 left. Then once Michigan adjusted, slowing down Kentucky's dribble penetration with a 1-3-1 defense, the Wildcats made timely outside shots.
They finished the game 53% from the field, including 7-for-11 from the three-point line. Harrison went 4-for-6 from the arc, all in the second half, including the game-winner.
"He's not afraid to miss," Calipari said. "That's the whole thing about making those kind of plays. You can't be afraid to miss. That's where he is right now."
And Kentucky needed every bit of that fearlessness, because Michigan wouldn't quit even after Harrison made a crushing three to give Kentucky a 72-67 lead with two minutes left.
With no more margin for error, the Wolverines responded with a three-pointer from Glenn Robinson III, a defensive stop, then a tip-in by Jordan Morgan with 31.5 seconds left after a sequence of three offensive rebounds.
At that point, Michigan coach John Beilein's only goal was to make Kentucky take a tough shot and hope to get to overtime.
"They've been shooting 33% (from three-point range) all year," Beilein said. "You (have to) make them score over you. I thought (LeVert) got his hand up. (Harrison) just made a shot."
It was a disappointing end for Michigan, last season's national runner-up, which shot 47.4% but just didn't have enough height and muscle inside to stop Randle (16 points, 11 rebounds) and little-used freshman Marcus Lee, who scored just nine points over the entire SEC schedule but stepped in for injured big man Willie Cauley-Stein and finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
Still, Michigan was able to hang in long enough to get within one shot. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, it was Kentucky who had the ball last.
"I knew I had to take the shot," Harrison said. "I wasn't really sure how much time was left, so I just tried to take the best shot I could. And it fell. Seeing my teammates so happy and running toward me, it's the best feeling in the world."
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