Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari speaks during the trophy presentation after the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the finals of the midwest regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena. Kentucky won 68-66.
CLEVELAND – Kentucky is still chasing history, still unbeaten and still upright, still the NCAA tournament’s most talented and most compelling team. The Wildcats got pushed to the brink by Notre Dame Saturday night in the Midwest regional final, outworked for a time and outschooled for a time and everything but outfinished.
Notre Dame made a bunch of big shots, hung around early even when it wasn’t shooting well and had two of its only bad possessions late. For all of the drama and big shots Notre Dame hit to build a lead that lasted to the final 90 seconds and put a raucous Quicken Loans Arena crowd into full pucker mode, the ending was pretty anti-climatic.
Kentucky got a stop. Andrew Harrison dribbled and waited, and waited some more, and Harrison got into the lane rather easily and got fouled. He made two free throws with six seconds left, Kentucky used its length and athleticism to force Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant into a shot that had little chance and the No. 1 overall seed advance, 68-66, to move to 38-0.
"We’re undefeated, but we’re not perfect," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We showed that tonight."
Big, fast, gifted, lucky and persistent — Kentucky’s all of those, and they all matter — the young Wildcats are prone to poor shot selection and trying to block too many shots. Notre Dame’s extra passes, extra rebounding effort and the pick-and-roll game all gave Kentucky fits Saturday.
The Wildcats live to tell about it because they made their last nine shots. They stared down Notre Dame’s upset bid, answered every momentum shift and came out on top, like they always do. Kentucky’s last missed field goal came with 12:05 left.
"We really thought we had a great chance of beating them," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "We emptied the tank tonight."
Kentucky trailed by six with 6:16 left and by four more than 90 seconds later. Grant made a 3-pointer with 2:36 left to answer one by Aaron Harrison and put Notre Dame back in the lead, but that would be Notre Dame’s last score. Down the stretch Notre Dame did too much dribbling and Kentucky played too much defense.
"The size gets to you," Brey said. "It took its toll on us."
Brey said he "used a couple timeouts just to rest us," and after Andrew Harrison made those free throws wit six seconds left, Notre Dame had no timeouts. Grant went baseline to baseline — and was double-teamed baseline to baseline by Harrison and Willie Cauley-Stein. There every step of the way was Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer who runs like a point guard and can reach to the rafters.
The Kentucky Freakshow won out.
Big, fast, gifted, lucky and not afraid of the moment. The Wildcats are all those things.
The best game of the NCAA tournament went to the best team — even after it looked like it wouldn’t.