Most experts miss the mark as UK men deny Tar Heels
Posted: Monday, March 28, 2011 5:11 pm
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — This wasn’t supposed to be the season Kentucky ended its 13-year Final Four drought.
That was supposed to happen last year, in coach John Calipari’s first season on the bench, when John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins electrified a flagging program one fast break at a time.
Or maybe next year, when another high-profile flock of recruits follows college basketball’s pied piper to the place where Final Fours and national championships aren’t just expected, but demanded.
Yet here they are heading to Houston: the freshmen that were supposed to be just good, not great. The overlooked veterans thrust into the mix out of necessity more than anything else. And the coach tasked with one thing when Kentucky lured him away from Memphis two years ago: restoring the Wildcats to glory.
Freshman point guard Brandon Knight scored 22 points and fourth-seeded Kentucky advanced to the Final Four for the first time since its 1998 national title with a 76-69 win over second-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in the East Regional final.
“We got Kentucky back,” senior center Josh Harrellson said. “A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people really didn’t think we’d be the team we are. We really pulled it together as a team, and we’re back now.”
The Wildcats (29-8) will play Connecticut on Saturday night after turning back a late surge by the Tar Heels (27-10), who erased an 11-point deficit before running out of gas in the final 2 minutes.
DeAndre Liggins added 12 points for Kentucky, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 37 seconds remaining to help lift the Wildcats to their 14th Final Four.
Even the guy who hired Calipari wasn’t sure this would be the season the 13-year drought — the longest in school history — would end.
“I thought he was building toward it, but I didn’t think this was the year,” Kentucky president Lee Todd said.
It didn’t look like it in January, when the Wildcats couldn’t win a close game. It didn’t look like it in February, when they couldn’t win on the road.
Calipari conceded it didn’t look that way two weeks ago, when his team was relegated to a fourth seed despite convincingly winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The powers that be put Kentucky in the same bracket as Ohio State.
“I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous,” Calipari said, “that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off.”
Kentucky edged Ohio State on Friday, then gave the Final Four another blue blood program, though with a twist. There will be no No. 1 or No. 2 seeds playing the last weekend of the season.
The Wildcats have a pedigree and a roster full of highly touted freshmen. Yet they’re just as reliant on holdovers such as Liggins and Harrellson.
A seldom-used reserve a year ago who has flourished in his final season, Harrellson again held his own against North Carolina’s bigger, more heralded front line, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds as Kentucky avenged a 75-73 loss to the Tar Heels in December.
It was a different story in March in New Jersey.
It’s a month Kentucky and North Carolina have owned for years. They’ve combined for 210 NCAA Tournament victories — 105 each — but Sunday’s win was the Wildcats’ first in three NCAA meetings with the Tar Heels.
Not that North Carolina coach Roy Williams was in the mood for a history lesson.
“I’m going to focus on what a wonderful group of kids and what a wonderful year it was,” he said. “But it still doesn’t take away the hurt that you feel today.”
Tyler Zeller led the Tar Heels with 21 points and nine rebounds and Harrison Barnes added 18 points, but North Carolina fell behind early and struggled to keep the hot-shooting Wildcats in check.
“No question, I thought we were going to pull it out,” Barnes said. “We’ve been through so many of these situations before. Losing didn’t enter my mind until the final horn sounded.”
Instead, it was Harrellson giving teammate Eloy Vargas a bear hug and Knight flexing at midcourt.
Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only coaches to lead three different programs to the Final Four. Calipari’s previous visits at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 were vacated by the NCAA for rules violations, but Calipari was not found liable in either instance.
Athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Calipari wanted his Final Four appearances with the Wildcats “to stick.” Time will tell, though he’s already restored the shine to a program that’s slowly slipped off its perch over the past decade.
That lust for a championship banner is why Kentucky went after Calipari so aggressively, making him the highest-paid coach in the country.
No team has been to the Final Four more than North Carolina, and the Tar Heels were poised to add to their NCAA-record 18 appearances after mauling Marquette in the regional semifinals Friday.
Instead, their resurgent season ended with a downtrodden Barnes glumly shaking hands as Kentucky players donned Final Four caps a few feet away.
The game mirrored much of the talented freshman’s season. He struggled early then caught fire late, scoring eight straight at one point as the Tar Heels clawed back into it.
Yet he faltered in the final minute, missing a 3-pointer after Liggins’ big shot then missing another one after Knight hit two free throws to give Kentucky a six-point lead.
Barnes refused to discuss whether he’d return next year.
“All I know is the last two years I played basketball it ended with a championship, not a loss,” he said. “I never felt like this before.”
Neither have the Wildcats, all of whom where in grade school when Kentucky beat Utah in San Antonio for its seventh national title in 1998.
“This is a great tradition that we have to live up to,” Knight said. “It feels good that we were able to do this for Kentucky.”