Elite 8 Recap East Final - (4) Kentucky 76, (2) North Carolina 69

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Life is a never-ending succession of curveballs. Kentucky fans who had waited 13 years for a Final Four appearance finally got one in a manner that was quite unexpected.

Last year, Kentucky coach John Calipari presided over a “superteam,” a collection of top-flight talent that swaggered and soared through the college basketball season. No. 1 overall NBA draft pick John Wall led a freshman-dominated lineup that paraded immediately to the pro game. DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton and Patrick Patterson were all taken in June’s draft, making the 2010 Kentucky team one of the most formidable in recent memory.

Yet, that team failed to make the Final Four. It fell in love with the three-point shot in the East Regional final against West Virginia and couldn’t hit the side of a barn. The stunning loss jolted Calipari and his coaching staff, removing what looked like the program’s best chance to go to the Final Four. This year, UK had to start over, or so it seemed. The Wildcats won only two SEC road games and failed to find their footing. Before the tournament, Ohio State was viewed as a clear favorite over Kentucky in the East Regional semifinals. This was not supposed to be the Calipari team at Kentucky that broke the Final Four barrier.

Look at the Wildcats now, though: They punched their ticket to college basketball’s holy grail precisely when nobody expected it. 

In a clash between two of the most storied programs in NCAA tournament history, fourth-seeded Kentucky defeated second-seeded North Carolina in the East Regional final on Sunday to advance to its first Final Four since 1998, when it won its last national championship. Even though the Wildcats and Tar Heels have a combined 94 tournament appearances between them, this was only the third time that the two programs had met in the Big Dance, and this was the first time that Kentucky was able to beat Carolina in the tournament.

Oh, what a sweet time Big Blue picked to take down the Tar Heels in March.

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This will be UK’s 14th Final Four appearance, fourth in NCAA history behind UCLA and UNC with 18, and Duke with 15. The Wildcats will face the West Region champion Connecticut Huskies in the second national semifinal on Saturday in Houston, the site of this year’s Final Four festival. The first semifinal will match Southeast Region champion Butler against Southwest Region winner Virginia Commonwealth.

Kentucky led Carolina by eight points at the half, playing a decidedly more aggressive and attuned brand of basketball that forced foul problems on the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward John Henson, who was whistled for his third personal and forced to the bench with six minutes remaining before the break. Carolina recovered three turnovers in Kentucky’s first three possessions in the second half and closed the gap to four before Henson was called for his fourth foul with 16 minutes remaining and sent to the bench until after the under-eight-minute timeout was called. Kentucky achieved its largest lead (11 points) shortly after Henson went to the bench and used the big man’s foul problems to attain leverage for most of the day. Much as the foul troubles of Derrick Williams really limited Arizona against Connecticut the day before in the West Regional final, Henson’s prolonged absence in the middle really limited the Tar Heels on Sunday.

However, with all of that having been said, it still stands that the ACC champions made a bold run at the flag and came very close to pulling out what would have been a remarkable win. Carolina followed its late season tradition of fighting back from second half deficits and only trailed by four when Henson returned. The Tar Heels, thanks to a brief surge by star freshman Harrison Barnes, got points behind the three-point line and also in transition. Barnes was kept under wraps by Kentucky’s Doron Lamb for most of the day, but he was able to break free at crunch time. UNC completed the comeback by tying the score at 67 when Tyler Zeller hit a pair of free-throws with 3:18 remaining, and it appeared that Carolina had the game’s momentum in hand, but Kentucky’s Brandon Knight answered immediately with a 3-pointer, and although Zeller tipped a Dexter Strickland layup to make the score 70-69, the Tar Heels would not score again.

The game’s defining possession emerged when, with just over a minute left, Carolina had a chance to take the lead. Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall found a driving path on the right side of the lane and got close to the basket. Marshall, a lefty, put the ball up with his left hand instead of using his right to use the rim as a buffer and get the ball on the glass. DeAndre Liggins came over and blocked the shot, and when Liggins then hit a three at the other end, the narrative had been written in Kentucky, not Carolina, blue. Knight connected on three foul shots down the stretch to fully seal the victory, and John Calipari – after failing to make the Final Four with his all-star cast last year – did the deed with a less likely but legitimately gallant group. March Madness has a way of creating those kinds of stories.

North Carolina completed its rollercoaster season shooting only 3-of-16 from three-point range. The Tar Heels were led by Zeller with 21 points and nine rebounds, Barnes with 18 points, and Strickland with 11. Henson fouled out with under a minute remaining in the game with four points and nine rebounds. It is unclear which members of coach Roy Williams’s talented young squad will return next season.

Kentucky hit 12 of its 22 three-point attempts, the defining element of this game. The Cats were led by Knight – their assassin and on-court leader – with 22 points and seven rebounds. Liggins and Josh Harrellson (eight rebounds) added 12, while Darius Miller and Terrence Miller contributed to the Kentucky cause with 11 points. Excellent ball movement led to an efficient offense for the Wildcats: When they made four or more passes in a possession, they were 14-for-23 from the field, including a spectacular eight-for-eight from three-point range.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer




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