Three Hits: Harrison triple vaults Kentucky into NCAA final
Here are three things we gleaned from Kentucky’s 74-73 win over 2nd-seeded Wisconsin, a scintillating game — replete with a heart-stopping finish — that has few peers for Final Four Saturday during this century.
But first, let’s have some perspective as to what lies ahead for Monday’s title-game clash between Connecticut (7-seed) and Kentucky (8-seed):
**It’s the first-ever championship match between a pair of teams seeded 7th or higher.
**Per CBS Sports, the Wildcats are the first team in tournament history to win four straight games by five points or less.
**Speaking of tight deficits, Kentucky has now gone four consecutive outings without a lead at halftime (trailed by six against Wichita State, four against Louisville, tied with Michigan and down four against Wisconsin).
**On Saturday, Connecticut closed the first half with a sterling 21-6 run (three-point halftime lead over top-ranked Florida). A few hours later … Kentucky produced a 15-0 spurt at the beginning of the second half.
**Of the last 18 years, Kentucky (1996, 1998, 2012) and UConn (1999, 2004, 2011) have each claimed three national titles … meaning Monday could be viewed as some kind of bragging rights ‘rubber match.’
On the wee-morning hours of March 29, when writing off Kentucky’s Sweet 16 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium, I confidently speculated that Harrison’s go-ahead triple against Louisville might have been the most important long-range shot in Wildcats history.
Well, just eight days later, Harrison has twice eclipsed that once-lofty ranking from the Louisville game-winner, hitting a pair of miracle rainbows against Michigan in the regional final (March 30) and Saturday against Wisconsin.
For the Michigan three-pointer, the score was tied at the time, meaning there weren’t many consequences for Kentucky (50-percent shooting vs. Wisconsin) — if the freshman Harrison missed from 22 feet out. (He didn’t.)
The scene was a little different on Saturday: With Wisconsin (46-percent shooting vs. the ‘Cats) holding a two-point lead in the final seconds — thanks to a pair of free throws from Badgers guard Traevon Jackson (10 points, three assists, three rebounds) — Harrison’s long-range miss would have almost certainly resulted in a UK loss.
When looking at the wide-angle replay, the Badgers had great rebounding position on the Kentucky players in the paint … and no one was seemingly in line to grab the weak-side board — presumably on a long miss.
But Harrison, who had only nailed one of five shots prior to that miracle, buried the 23-footer over a Wisconsin defender … with his back right heel just a few inches from the sideline out-of-bounds.
Therein lies the benefits of starting five players at 6-foot-6 or taller and fielding a playing rotation full of long, athletic, immensely talented dynamos.
Primarily the Harrison twins.
Against the Badgers, Aaron Harrison (five points, three rebounds) and Andrew Harrison (nine points, three boards) consistently traversed into the paint, allowing the Wildcats to get quality looks at the basket, draw a slew of first-half fouls … and attack the basket, in search of offensive rebounds, with good results.
Hence, Kentucky’s Saturday tally of seven assists was somewhat misleading. In this instance, there’s value in the Wildcats collecting 11 offensive rebounds and surrendering just four turnovers.
In fact, Kentucky (28-10) was so proficient at penetrating the lane and kicking the ball inside to Julius Randle (16 points, five boards), James Young (17 points) and Alex Poythress (eight points, seven rebounds) … it’s not surprising the ‘Cats sunk only one three-pointer in the final 39 minutes of action.
That one make: Harrison’s no-dribble game-winner with 5.7 seconds left.
On the surface, it’s eminently pointless to punch the Badgers’ ticket for Indianapolis so far in advance, since we know that matchups — in terms of size differential and pace of play — typically fuel one-and-done upsets.
But looking at Wisconsin’s prospects for next season — where everyone but Ben Brust (15 points) returns to school — it’s easy to envision the Badgers opening as a top-five club, a prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten and a rock-solid candidate to win it all on April 6, 2015.
The Badgers’ schedule will presumably be a bear next season, similar to the 2013-14 campaign which included non-conference victories over Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia, Virginia, Marquette, Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Plus, assuming Wisconsin (30-7 overall) has a great season and earns a top seed in next year’s tourney, the Badgers could be staring at either Omaha, Neb. or Columbus, Ohio for the opening-weekend venue and then make a short jaunt to Cleveland, Ohio for regional play (Midwest).
Throw in the Final Four at Indy’s Lucas Oil Stadium … and the Badgers likely wouldn’t have to stray too far, travel-wise, to handle any of the three weekend destinations.