ARLINGTON, Texas –- Moments after his brother made what could have been a season-ending mistake, Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison drilled the shot that kept the Wildcats’ national championship dreams alive.
Harrison’s 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left lifted Kentucky past Wisconsin 74-73 and into Monday night’s matchup with Connecticut for the national title at AT&T Stadium.
“We fight so hard and we are so resilient,” said Aaron Harrison, one of three native Texans (all freshmen) in Kentucky’s starting lineup. “We never stop fighting. We always thought we were going to win the game, and I think that’s why we did.”
Neither Kentucky or UConn was in the NCAA Tournament last season.
The one-and-done Wildcats (29-10) advanced after Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson’s shot at the buzzer rimmed out. Jackson had given the Badgers a two-point lead on the previous possession.
“I thought I got hit on my arm,” Jackson said of the last shot. “I thought once it was out of my hands I thought it had a chance to go in. When I saw it didn’t go in, it was shocking rather than a sadness at that point.”
Kentucky is shooting for its ninth NCAA championship and second under coach John Calipari. The Wildcats also won in 2012.
The veteran-laden Badgers finished the season 30-8 after the program’s first Final Four since 2000 and first under coach Bo Ryan, who finished his 13th year at Wisconsin.
“Extremely proud of these guys,” Ryan said. “It comes down to a one-possessions game. The last possession always seems so magnified. There were 60, 70, 80 possessions in there and we just came up one short. We’ve been on the other end of those and we know what it’s like.”
With the score tied 71-71 going into the final minute, Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison badly missed a jumper and had an even bigger blunder at the other end.
With the shot clock running out and Wisconsin nowhere near a clean look, Harrison left his feet and fouled Jackson’s desperation 3-point try with 16.4 seconds left.
Jackson missed the first free throw before making the next two, setting up the final Kentucky try. After trying to get a shot in the post, Aaron Harrison got the ball in the corner and did not hesitate. The ball rattled before falling through the net.
“Aaron saved his brother,” Calipari said. “His brother missed his jumper when we wanted him to drive, then he fouled the 3-point shooter. Thank goodness the kid only made two or this thing is a different ballgame.”
Kentucky forward James Young led all scorers with 17 points. Freshman forward and Dallas product Julius Randle, a sure-fire lottery pick, had 16 points and five rebounds. Center Dakari Johnson had 10 points and seven boards.
The Badgers opened the second half with a 3-pointer from forward Sam Dekker (15 points), increasing their lead to 43-36. Calipari called timeout 59 seconds into the half, and his Wildcats were a different team after.
Kentucky exploded with 15 straight points, exploiting their edge in athleticism and attacking the basket. The Badgers got sloppy with the basketball and appeared to lose their grip on the game.
Down 51-43, Wisconsin summoned another push to regain the lead. Forward Duje Dukan and guard Ben Brust (15 points) began knocking down big shot after big shot, and suddenly Kentucky was trailing again.
“Again, we made a bunch of freshman mistakes,” Calipari said. “Down the stretch, we gave them a chance. We had a seven-point lead, eight-point lead and I thought, ‘OK.’ And all of the sudden you look up and it’s a tie game.
“Bo (Ryan) did a great job. Wisconsin did a great job. They weren’t going to go away. Whoever had the ball last that could make a shot was going to win the game.”
Wisconsin was the first team to get some separation, taking a 14-9 lead on Brust’s 3-pointer and forcing an early timeout by Calipari. Burst nailed another from deep coming out of the stoppage for a 17-9 edge.
The Wildcats closed the gap by scoring inside, including two point-blank tip-ins by Johnson. Perfectly thrown lobs from Aaron Harrison resulted in dunks for forwards Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress.
The Badgers kept their composure and
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