INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison had a harsh but correct assessment of his first half performance Sunday.
“I wasn’t there for my team,” he said.
That changed in the last four minutes and 19 seconds. Harrison drilled three critical 3-pointers, including the game winner over Michigan guard Caris LeVert with 2.6 seconds left, and the eighth-seeded Wildcats beat the second-seeded Wolverines 75-72 to capture the Midwest Region championship in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Kentucky (28-10) will meet West Region champion Wisconsin on Saturday night in a national semifinal at Arlington, Texas.
Before the season, many expected the Wildcats and their plethora of freshmen — seven of the eight players Sunday who saw action were in high school at this time a year ago — to reach the Final Four.
However, Kentucky went about it in a way that gave its huge following reason for worry. The Wildcats grew more inconsistent in the regular season’s final month, bottoming out March 1 with a loss at lowly South Carolina during a game in which coach John Calipari was tossed and then skipped the postgame press conference.
However, Calipari made some tweaks before the Southeastern Conference tournament, and his team has played to its potential since, going 6-1, with the only loss a one-pointer to top-seeded Florida in the SEC title game.
“I guess I saw it coming,” Harrison said of the turnaround. “(The South Carolina game) was a bad loss, but we knew what we could do.”
Kentucky’s potential was apparent the past three games, all dramatic wins in which victory wasn’t assured until the very end. The Wildcats beat Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan by a combined 10 points.
“All three of those games have been epic,” Calipari said. “We’ve been down by 10 points in every game, but this team seems to play better when it falls behind. They bow their necks and they just play.”
The Wolverines (28-9) didn’t shame themselves in defeat. They shot 47.4 percent from the field and committed just seven turnovers against a long, athletic opponent.
Michigan guard Nik Stauskas scored a game-high 24 points, 18 in the first half, while forward Glenn Robinson III hit for 14 and forward Jordan Morgan netted 11 points.
“Even the people in the highest seats got their money’s worth,” Michigan coach John Beilein said of the Kentucky-leaning crowd of 35,551. “That was a great game for college basketball.”
After Morgan’s tip-in with 31.5 seconds left evened the score at 72, the Wildcats melted the clock down to 10 seconds before LeVert committed a non-shooting foul, the Wolverines’ sixth of the half. Calipari opted against a timeout, and Harrison made the decision a good one.
Taking a dribble handoff, Harrison dribbled twice and let fly with a 24-footer over the outstretched LeVert. The ball melted into the net as Harrison’s teammates mobbed him near midcourt.
“I knew it was going to be our last shot (of regulation),” Harrison said. “A little bit after I shot it, I knew it was going in. It felt pretty good.”
Following a timeout, Stauskas tried a running shot from midcourt with time expiring, but it was wide right.
Kentucky forward Julius Randle notched his fourth consecutive double-double, posting 16 points and 11 rebounds. Forward James Young tallied 13 points, Harrison scored 12, and little-used forward Marcus Lee finished with 10 points and eight rebounds. All four are freshmen.
The Wolverines looked like the more composed team at the start, establishing a 14-6 lead just over six minutes into the game after Stauskas stuck a 3-pointer.
However, Kentucky worked its way back into the game behind a shocking boost from Lee, who scored just 45 points in 126 minutes entering the game. Lee, playing because center Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle) was injured in Friday night’s win over Louisville, fired up the Wildcats fans with three emphatic rebound dunks in less than two minutes.
“We had very little on him,” Beilein said of Michigan’s scouting report on Lee. “He does one thing very well: He plays way over the rim.”
Stauskas’ driving layup gave the Wolverines a 32-22 lead with 5:11 left in the half, but Kentucky rallied with a 15-5 spurt to end the half. Forward Julius Randle nailed a pull-up jumper
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