Youth prevailed once again in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky’s one-and-done squad pulled off another remarkable comeback, this time against veteran-laden Wisconsin.
The Wildcats punched their ticket to the national championship game in thrilling fashion, overcoming a late deficit for a 74-73 victory over the Badgers on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium.
Wildcats freshman guard Aaron Harrison has become the star of March and now April with three consecutive game-winning baskets — including Saturday’s 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left — to send his team to the Elite Eight, Final Four and now the title game.
“I’m pretty confident so far,” Harrison said. “I’ve been hitting some big shots down the stretch. I didn’t play that well today, but I hit a big shot and I’m happy for my teammates, and I’m glad we won.”
Kentucky (29-10), the eighth seed from the Midwest Region despite being the top-ranked team going into the year, will meet Connecticut (31-8), the seven seed from the East, for the title on Monday night.
If Kentucky wins, it would become the first eight seed to do so since Villanova in 1985 and pull to within two championships of UCLA, which leads the nation with 11.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, ended its season at 30-8 after reaching the Final Four for the first time under coach Bo Ryan.
“I liked our chances,” Ryan said. “It just didn’t happen.”
The Badgers controlled the game, even with star forward Frank Kaminsky shut down by the Wildcats’ physical inside play, but the Wildcats took it from them.
Kentucky didn’t lead from the 16-minute mark in the first half until a three-point play by Dakari Johnson at the 17:05 mark in the second half for a 45-43 lead.
That was part of what became a 15-0 run for the Wildcats, which came after coach John Calipari called an early timeout in the second half with his team down 43-36.
Whatever the message was, it was received.
Dallas native Julius Randle made a turnaround jumper in the paint; the defense forced a shot-clock violation that led to a driving layup by James Young; and then Young missed a free throw but got his own rebound and made a jumper to pull the Wildcats to within 43-42 with 17:39 left.
Johnson followed with his three-point play, and Kentucky scored six more points for a 51-43 advantage.
“We just had to pick it up,” Young said. “Coach told us just to pick it up. In the second half, we always do good for some reason. We just put our heads together. We just have the will to win.”
But the Badgers answered and regained control with their own 15-4 run. Little-known junior forward Duje Dukan hit the go-ahead 3-pointer for Wisconsin with 11:55 left, and the Badgers didn’t let the lead slip away until late.
Randle made a pair of free throws to tie the game at 69-69 with 3:48 left, but the Badgers had chances to pull ahead.
But Wisconsin turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions, and Kentucky took advantage on the second when Andrew Harrison served up an alley-oop dunk to Alex Poythress for a 71-69 lead with 2:16 left.
Wisconsin tied the game on a putback by Kaminsky and, after a Kentucky miss, had another chance to take the lead.
With the shot clock winding down, Badgers junior guard Traevon Jackson pump-faked on a 3-pointer and got Andrew Harrison to leave his feet, drawing a foul. But Jackson missed his first free throw — Wisconsin’s first and only miss on the night — before knocking down the next two for a 73-71 lead with 16 seconds left.
That left Kentucky in position either to go for the lead or tie, and Aaron Harrison found himself open on the left wing and rattled in a 3-pointer. It was only the second 3-pointer Kentucky made and sent the Wildcats faithful into a frenzy with a 74-73 lead.
“They usually get five 3s a game; we hoped to end the game with them making one 3,” Ryan said. “They ended up getting two, and one was the 3 they needed.”
Wisconsin had a final chance with 5.7 seconds left and put the ball in Jackson’s hands, but he missed a jumper at the buzzer.