CLEVELAND (AP) — With everything at stake, Kentucky didn’t panic and played to perfection.
The Wildcats made clutch shots, buckled down on fearless Notre Dame and kept their unblemished season intact.
The shot at history and another NCAA title are in reach.
Andrew Harrison made two free throws with six seconds remaining, and the unbeaten Wildcats made their last nine shots to survive their toughest test to date, coming back after trailing for much of the second half to defeat the Fighting Irish 68-66 on Saturday night in the Midwest Regional final.
The Wildcats (38-0), seeking to become college basketball’s first undefeated champion in 39 years, advanced to the Final Four in Indianapolis next week, where they will meet Wisconsin — a rematch of last year’s semifinal.
“We know our will to win,” said Aaron Harrison, who hit a crucial 3-pointer. “And it just showed us we never give up, and we fight to the end just like any other team.”
These Wildcats are not like any other team.
The Fighting Irish (32-6) came within seconds of shocking the tournament’s overwhelming favorite. Notre Dame, with a rich history of stunning upsets in football and basketball, wasn’t done until Jerian Grant’s double-clutch 3-pointer from the left corner was long.
When the ball harmlessly hit the floor and the horn sounded, Kentucky’s players hugged in celebration knowing they had ducked disaster. The Cats had used up one of their nine lives.
“We didn’t play very well and Notre Dame, I thought, controlled the whole thing, but we made the plays,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We figured out a way to win it. We’ve had other tests, but we have a will to win.”
Karl-Anthony Towns scored 25 — 17 after halftime — to lead Kentucky.
Zach Auguste scored 20, Steve Vasturia 16 and Grant 15 for the third-seeded Fighting Irish, playing in their first regional final in 36 years.
There was no doubt Notre Dame belonged. The ACC tournament champions controlled the tempo and weren’t intimated by the Wildcats and their collection of high school All-Americans and soon-to-be NBA millionaires.
The Fighting Irish took the fight to Kentucky and nearly pulled off another one of those shockers.
“We really thought we had a great chance of beating them, and I thought we displayed that,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “But I think you’ve got to give them credit, they made some big plays, they made some timely 3-point shots at key times.”
Calipari insisted on Friday his team was not perfect, only unbeaten and that any team left in the tournament was capable of toppling the top Cats.
Notre Dame was right there.
“It’s tough,” said Grant, who returned to Notre Dame this season after being dismissed for academics. “Just to be so close to making history, from doing something so special and just like that it’s over. We felt we played well enough to win.”
Following a brief award ceremony, Kentucky’s players joyfully cut down the nets as Prince’s “1999” blared through the speakers. The party was on, but Notre Dame had nearly crashed it during an electrifying game which kept 20,000-plus fans inside Quicken Loans Arena on the edge of their seats for two hours. The game featured 20 lead changes and 12 ties.
The Wildcats survived.
“Desperation,” Andrew Harrison said, describing Kentucky’s predicament down the stretch. “We had no choice or we were gonna lose.”
Down six with 5:22 left after Auguste’s three-point play, Kentucky roared back and took a 64-63 lead on Aaron Harrison’s 3-pointer with 3:14 left. The sophomore, who hit two big last-second shots in last year’s tournament to get Kentucky to the title game, stared into the crowd of delirious Wildcats fans, including actress Ashley Judd, who spent most of the night jumping out of her seat.
Notre Dame’s Grant responded with a 3 to put the Irish ahead 66-64, but the Wildcats again went inside to the 6-foot-11 Towns, who backed down Auguste to drop in another layup.
The Fighting Irish ran as much clock out as possible, but Grant had his shot blocked by Willie Cauley-Stein and the ball went back to Kentucky on a 35-second violation — Notre Dame’s only turnover of the second half. Kentucky then put the ball in Andrew Harrison’s hands and he drew a foul before knocking down his free throws.
Grant pushed the ball up, but with several Kentucky players in his face, his last-second heave was way off.
Before the game, Brey said his players would have the nation’s support, believing the Fighting Irish would be adopted by the nation and take the floor as “America’s team.”
With a fan holding as sign that said: “Miracles Happen,” Notre Dame didn’t shy away from driving the ball at Kentucky’s front line in the first half, getting several put-back dunks.
For a long stretch of the second half it appeared the Fighting Irish would add another upset to their roster of stunners, none bigger than ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in 1974.
But this Kentucky team wouldn’t have it, and are now on history’s doorstep.
“We know we’re not perfect,” Calipari said.
And not done, either.
Notre Dame: The last time the Fighting Irish played in a regional final (March 18, 1979) they lost to eventual national champion Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson. … Grant is the only player in school history with at least 1,700 points, 600 assists, 150 steals and 30 blocks.
Kentucky: The Wildcats beat the Badgers 74-73 in last year’s Final Four, winning on Andrew Harrison’s 3-pointer with five seconds left. … The Wildcats have made a 3-pointer in 938 consecutive games, the nation’s second-longest streak. UNLV has dropped a 3 in 941 straight.
Notre Dame: Season over.
Kentucky: Plays Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday.