Kentucky has gone from unranked to the national championship game
The Wildcats were preseason No. 1. Then they were unranked. And now they're playing for a national title thanks to a run filled with drama and big shots.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Willie Cauley-Stein had his glasses on and his GoPro camera out, and he was ready to video whatever would come next. Or at least he thought he was ready.
"But I didn't click the button fast enough," Cauley-Stein, the injured Kentucky Wildcat, told me afterward in the locker room. "I didn't think he was going to shoot it!"
Nobody did, Willie.
At least not from out there.
But Aaron Harrison did shoot it.
(Of course Aaron Harrison shot it.)
And because it went in -- and because Traevon Jackson had missed a free throw on the previous possession with 16.4 seconds left and would later miss a jumper on the subsequent possession at the buzzer -- Kentucky recorded a 74-73 win over Wisconsin late Saturday here at AT&T Stadium. So the Wildcats are now one win away from their second national title in three years. More specifically, the Wildcats are now favored to win their second national title in three years. They opened as 2.5-point favorites over UConn.
"It's unreal," said Aaron Harrison, who has made 3-pointers in the final minute to help the Wildcats win three games in this NCAA Tournament -- first against Louisville, then against Michigan, and, most recently, against Wisconsin with 5.7 seconds remaining and in front of a record crowd of 79,444 that filled the home of the Dallas Cowboys. "Just going through the things that we went through this season, and getting past it while being so young ... it just shows that being young really doesn't have that much of an effect."
Not lately, obviously.
But for a while it did, and it really is remarkable how the past five weeks have unfolded for Kentucky. As you probably know, the Wildcats started the season ranked No. 1 because of a recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 thanks to a record six McDonald's All-Americans. Some fans thought John Calipari's team might go 40-0. T-shirts were even printed, just in case.
Then UK lost the third game on its schedule, against Michigan State.
And the ninth, against Baylor.
And the 11th, against North Carolina.
The Wildcats started 8-3 overall and later went 12-6 in the SEC with two losses to Arkansas and a loss to South Carolina. They tied with Georgia in the league standings, lost to Florida for a third time in the SEC tournament title game, and entered the NCAA Tournament unranked in the Associated Press poll. In other words, things didn't go as planned or well. And yet, still, here they are -- right where they were always supposed to be. Somehow.
The Wildcats' path to this title game has been winding and filled with drama. They came from behind to beat Wichita State in the Round of 32, from behind to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16, from behind to beat Michigan in the Elite Eight and from behind to beat Wisconsin in the Final Four. They've gone 8-2 since losing at South Carolina on March 1 with the only two losses coming to Florida, and, oddly, they won't have to play Florida for a fourth time because UConn snapped the Gators' 30-game winning streak in the other semifinal.
"It's nuts," Calipari said. "We're still standing."
Yes, they're still standing.
They've been knocked down lots, lost a future lottery pick big along the way to injury, and seemed on the verge of folding multiple times. But, like Calipari said, they're still standing.
Five months ago, this is where the Wildcats were supposed to be.
Five weeks ago, not so much.
But here they are.
"Definitely not satisfied," said UK freshman Julius Randle, who finished with 16 points and five rebounds. "We have been through a lot this year, and we deserve to reward ourselves and go out there and play hard and give it all we got. So definitely not satisfied."
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