Sunday, April 6, 2014

Wisconsin 73 - 74 Kentucky (NCAA Tournament) (North Texas) (No. 2,140)

On paper, I can make the argument that a game where Kentucky hits a three-pointer with 5.7 seconds remaining to send the Cats to a national championship game is the most dramatic victory in the long history of UK basketball.  Certainly I've never seen UK win another game of such importance on such a heart-stopping, last-second shot.  But when you consider that this game was the fourth in a series of spectacular, come-from-behind victories by these Cats, the story goes from being dramatic and spectacular to downright spooky.

Let me be clear:  I really, really want the Cats to capture their ninth national championship tomorrow night.  I want it for all the UK fans who have supported this team with such passion for so many years.  I want it for these kids who have played so hard and done everything their coach or their fan base could have asked for.  I want it so that this spectacular run through the NCAA's will have a worthy finish.  But before Monday night, let's all take a few minutes and just be so, so happy that we got the chance to see this tournament.  On TBS last night, they said that in the history of the NCAA Tournament, no team had ever won four games in a row by five points or less.  Given that the tournament has been going on since 1939, there's a good chance that we may never see any team do what the Cats have done this year.  So let us all be grateful that it was our team that made the run, and that we are part of a blessed generation of Kentucky fans who got to see it.

Here's what happened:

1st Quarter:  Wisconsin 19, Kentucky 15

Every game, it seems to me, the Cats enter the game with the hope that this time, they won't have to play a red-hot team.  After all, Florida went only 1-10 from three-point range in its loss to UConn in the first semi-final last night.  Maybe the Badgers would be cold.  After all, Wisconsin didn't look like world-beaters to start with -- the Cats actually led 9-7 at the first TV timeout.  But then the Badgers went on a 10-0 run featuring back-to-back three pointers, and it was obvious that the Cats were in for another long night.

At this point, it is appropriate to note that in UK's last four games, their opponents have shot 29-74 from three-point range, an average of 39.2 percent.  Only 14 teams did better than that during the regular season, so that's some pretty high-quality shooting.  Last night, the Badgers made 50 percent of their two-point shots, 40 percent of their three-point shots, and 95 percent of their free throws.  They scored 1.2 points per possession -- the third of UK's last four opponents to reach that mark.  Only four teams averaged better than 1.2 points per possession during the regular season.  In short, the Cats have played four really good teams in a row, and each of those teams -- with the possible exception of Louisville, which missed 10 free throws -- have played about as well as they could.  Since the Cats beat Kansas State, they've never had a chance to relax, to take advantage of a team having an off night.  To me, that makes their run all the more amazing.

Suddenly down 17-9, the Cats started clawing their way back into the game.

2d Quarter:  Wisconsin 21, Kentucky 21 (Wisconsin led 40-36 at the half)

The Cats got to within 19-17, and then Wisconsin went on another spurt.  First they shredded the UK defense with a series of dunks and layups, and then they started getting the line over and over.  With 2:02 left in the first half, Wisconsin led 38-30.  At this point in the proceedings, Aaron Harrison had two fouls.  So did Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, and Dominique Hawkins.  Kentucky was playing a lineup with Hawkins, Jarrod Polson, Julius Randle (who had turned an ankle), James Young, and Alex Poythress.  With no Harrisons on the floor, there was a decent chance the Badgers would be up double-digits at the half.  But instead, here's what happened:

1:46 left:  DOMINIQUE HAWKINS made a layup (38-32)
1:35 left:  Wisconsin finally missed a layup, and JARROD POLSON got the rebound
1:28 left:  Julius Randle made a jump shot (38-34)

And from there, the Cats hung on to make it 40-36 at the half.  At halftime, several of the commentators noted that Wisconsin was playing very well -- but that they would likely regret not building a bigger lead at the half.

Those commentators turned out to be right.

3d Quarter:  Kentucky 21, Wisconsin 20 (Wisconsin led 60-57 with 10 minutes to go)

At halftime, Coach Calipari told the Cats to attack the basket and close out on Wisconsin's shooters.  In the first minute of the second half, Julius Randle missed a jump shot and the Badgers nailed a three to go up 43-36.

Calipari called time.

Now he had their attention, and suddenly the Cats jumped all over Wisconsin.  They started attacking the rim over and over, while Wisconsin was suddenly flummoxed on offense.  In less than four minutes of game time, the Cats had put together a 15-0 run, and they had a 51-43 lead.  I'm pretty sure that's the biggest lead UK had enjoyed at any time since they played Kansas State.  And at this point, I'm also pretty sure the Cats thought they had this game in hand.  After all, hadn't they shown that they could dominate the Badgers when they really wanted?

But Number 3 Son and I were pretty sure Wisconsin hadn't given up.  I had seen them come from far behind against Oregon in the second round with a blizzard of three-pointers, and now they put on a display of shooting that was simply spectacular:  In five and a half minutes, the Badgers scored 17 points, thanks in part to the fact that they went 3-3 from three-point range.  (So much for the notion that you can't make three's in a big stadium).  Meanwhile, the Cats were back to taking jump shots, and so their offense wasn't working as well as it had been.  With only 10 minutes left, Wisconsin was back on top:  60-57.

4th Quarter:  Kentucky 17, Wisconsin 13 (Kentucky wins 74-73)

So as the game ran down, it was clear that if Kentucky was going to reach the final, the Cats would have to survive another barn-burner.  The Cats had concentrated their defense on Wisconsin's best player, Frank Kaminsky, and they held the Wisconsin center to eight points and five rebounds.  But the other Badgers had picked up the slack, and their offense was clicking again.  With only 5:40 left, the Badgers led 67-62 and they had the ball.  Ben Brust, who went 3-7 from long range in this game, shot a three-pointer that would have put Wisconsin up eight.

But he finally missed.  Once more, the Cats began clawing their way back from a late deficit, and once again Poythress and Randle went to war:

5:22 left:  Randle made an old-fashioned three-point play (Wisconsin led 67-65)
5:06 left:  Kaminsky made a jump shot (Wisconsin led 69-65)
4:45 left:  Poythress made a spectacular driving DUNK! (Wisconsin led 69-67)
4:12 left:  Wisconsin missed a three-pointer (Poythress rebound)
3:48 left:  Randle made both ends of a one-and-one (tied at 69)
2:33 left:  Randle steals the ball
2:16 left:  Poythress converts a lob pass that had appeared to be too high (UK leads 71-69)

And now, you thought, UK finally had control of the game.  Once again, they had been amazing down the stretch.  Surely now Wisconsin would crack, especially after the Badgers missed another three-pointer and Poythress had another rebound.

But no.  The Cats were back to shooting jumpers.  Andrew Harrison missed a shot that could have put Wisconsin down four, and Kaminsky responded with a layup off of an offensive rebound that tied the score at 71.

75 seconds to go.

The Cats held the ball for 23 seconds, and then Andrew Harrison tried a three-pointer (another jump shot), that missed.  Wisconsin ball with 50 seconds left.  The Badgers held the ball for 33 seconds, and then Traevon Jackson, their point guard, did a stutter-step move just beyond the three-point line that was pretty clearly a walk.  But it wasn't called.  Instead, the move caused Andrew Harrison to jump up into the air, and after Jackson had jumped into him, the officials called a foul on Andrew -- giving Jackson three free throws.

Now up to this point, the Badgers had gone 17-17 from the line.  And Jackson shoots 77.2 percent from the line.  But he missed the first free throw.  After he made the next two, the score was 73-71 for Wisconsin and the Cats needed only two points to force overtime.

At least, that was my idea.  I always want to go for two in this situation, and take my chances in overtime.  But I'm not a great college basketball player.  And great college basketball players usually want to shoot a three for the win.  That's what Wichita State did when they were down 78-76 to Kentucky in the second round.  And that's what Aaron Harrison did here.

We haven't mentioned Aaron Harrison much in this report because up to this point in the game, he was only 2-7 from the field, and he hadn't taken a single three-pointer.  In fact, the Cats were only 1-4 from three-point range in this game -- they had been driving and driving and driving all night.  So when Aaron Harrison ended up with the ball way out near the sidelines -- at NBA range for a three-pointer -- the Wisconsin defender didn't close on him.  Instead, he braced for the drive.

But Aaron Harrison didn't drive.  Instead, just as he had against Michigan, he rose up and NAILED A THREE-POINTER TO GIVE UK A 74-73 LEAD.

There were still 5.7 seconds left, however.  And Wisconsin and UK both called timeouts to set up their last play.  In the end, Traevon Jackson drove the length of the floor, with UK players shadowing him -- but being careful not to foul him.  I was terrified that Jackson would find someone for an open shot or that he would draw a foul, so when he finally pulled up and shot a running 15-footer, I was willing to live with what happened.

He missed -- and Marcus Lee grabbed the rebound.  Just like that, Kentucky was in the final.

I don't know what will happen tomorrow night.  I haven't watched Connecticut play very much this year, and I don't know much about their team.  I'm pretty certain, based on how the tournament has gone so far, that the Huskies will play well.  But for me, that's not what this game is about.  Whatever happens tomorrow night, the 2014 Wildcats will be remembered as one of the most beloved teams ever to take the floor for the Big Blue.  And whatever happens, this game against Connecticut will be the last time they ever play together.  I wish them all the very best of luck, and I hope with all my heart that they get the trophy their efforts deserve.