March Madness 2014: No Moment Too Big as Freshmen Power Kentucky to Final Four

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March Madness 2014: No Moment Too Big as Freshmen Power Kentucky to Final Four
USA Today

INDIANAPOLIS — Moments after he hit the biggest shot of his life, Aaron Harrison could be found at the bottom of the dog pile on Lucas Oil court.

Harrison had the weight of the Kentucky Wildcats, literally, on top of him.

For months, the Wildcats didn't know how to carry all that weight—the expectations that come with the label of greatest recruiting class of all time—but something was different about Harrison.

At the lowest point of the season, a loss at SEC bottom-feeder South Carolina on March 1, Harrison told the media afterward that Kentucky was going to write a great story.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

On Sunday night in Indianapolis, Harrison put pen to paper. The freshman guard kept the story of this tournament—Kentucky's redemption story—alive with a beautiful step-back three-pointer to beat Michigan, 75-72, and put his team in the Final Four.

"He just has the ultimate confidence in himself," twin brother Andrew Harrison said, as the bright lights from TV cameras shined on his brother nearby in the UK locker room. "No matter what anyone says to him, he thinks he's the best person in the world."

That's fitting. Because after lumbering through the regular season and hearing criticism coming from every which direction, the Wildcats look and are now acting like the best team in college basketball.

They came at Michigan just like they came at Wichita State and Louisville before, like a Kentucky tidal wave.

This was the grand plan that Calipari dreamed up on the recruiting circuit a year ago when he was coaching a team that lacked enough depth to compensate for Nerlens Noel's injury and ended up in the NIT.

Calipari wanted more talent, so he convinced not one McDonald's All-American, not two, not three, not four, not five, but you better make it six, Jack, to join him in Lexington.

And wouldn't you know it but the sixth-best guy in that class, Marcus Lee, would be needed to get the preseason No. 1 team to the Final Four.

When sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein went out with an ankle injury on Friday, Calipari told his team that everyone in the world would be talking about Lee on Sunday.

That proved prophetic. Lee entered the game with 15:25 left in the first half and UK trailing by five, and over the next three minutes, he had three dunks to pull his team back within a basket.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Lee ended up making his first five shots and scoring 10 points after scoring only nine during the entire SEC season.

"We had very little on him," Michigan coach John Beilein said of the UK scouting report. "But he does one thing really, really well, and that's he plays way above the rim. You can see the advantage was obvious out there."

Yes, Lee and the leapers from Kentucky played at a different altitude than the Wolverines, whose lack of size finally caught up to them.

The 'Cats got back 17 of their 27 misses by simply out-muscling and out-jumping the Wolverines.

It's a testament to how good the Big Ten champs were to not only stay in this game but lead a good chunk of it, the same of which could be said about Wichita State and Louisville.

In those three games, Wichita State led at one point by nine, Louisville by 13 early on and Michigan had a 10-point lead in the first half on Sunday.

"They played better when they're down, and I don't know why," Calipari said. "They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their neck. And they want to win. They have the will to win." 

The comparisons have been made to Michigan's Fab Five since Calipari signed this class, and it came up again and again in the last few days because UK was going up against Michigan.

It's a ridiculous comparison to make because the Fab Five were loud and brash, and they were trendsetters. This group is not that.

But we're seeing now that the talent is comparable. And just like the Fab Five overwhelmed opponents with sheer ability, this group is doing the same.

Just like the Fab Five rocked their way through the 1992 bracket like it was no big thing because they didn't know any better, it's happening again 22 years later.

This group, like that one, doesn't seem to know any better.

Because you're not supposed to be this green and come back from those huge deficits. You're not supposed to be able to play so free and easy in front of 35,551 sets of eyes.

"That's what they should have been doing all year," Kentucky senior Jon Hood said. "But at the same time, that's real, real hard for them to understand. Just play ball. It's always been good enough. You've always been good enough."

That's easy to say now that Kentucky is headed to the Final Four for the third time in the last four seasons, but it looked doubtful 22 days ago when UK lost its regular-season finale by 19 to Florida, its third loss in four games to finish the regular season with nine losses. 

Only Aaron Harrison knew. But yet he had no idea what March was like.

He could not have known the pressure and how tense things get in the final minutes of close games on this stage.

It makes sense that the Wildcats were so poised in the clutch against undefeated Wichita State, defending champion Louisville and last year's runner-up, Michigan, because, again, they just didn't know any better. 

Against Wichita State, Kentucky scored on each of its last nine possessions. Against Louisville, the 'Cats scored on five of their last six possessions with Aaron Harrison knocking down the go-ahead three in that game as well. And against Michigan, Kentucky scored on the final five possessions with Harrison knocking down three treys during that stretch. 

The 'Cats needed every one of those buckets, as they ended up winning by two, five and three.

"These three games will be playing on ESPN Classic for a long, long time," Hood said. 

The next possible classic will be Saturday against another set of great shooters from Wisconsin. A possible fourth game against Florida in next Monday's national championship game could await. The Gators won easily in the first two meetings and then by one in the SEC championship game when this unlikely turnaround began for the Wildcats. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As Aaron Harrison finally made his way down off the stage on Sunday night, he ran over to hug his father before heading to the locker room.

"Mr. Clutch," friends and family around the two shouted at Aaron. 

He says he knew all this would happen. And with this team on this run, we all knew when he took that shot where it was ending up.

"I knew he could make that shot," Andrew Harrison said, "And he showed the world how good he was."

You all did.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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