Every national champion has some kind of close call in the tournament where they win a game that they weren't clearly going to win. If UK makes it to 40-0, we'll look back and say that Saturday's game was the one. Kentucky used some late game heroics from the Harrison brothers to squeak past Notre Dame 68-66.
The first half of the game was about as close as a game can be. Neither team was able to make more than two field goals in a row without the other team scoring. The largest lead either team had was Notre Dame's 26-22 lead with 2:44 to go, and that lasted 22 seconds before Trey Lyles made a three-point play to narrow the game back up again.
The Irish came out hot in the second half, making six of their first eight with one of the misses being put back by Zach Auguste. Karl-Anthony Towns made or assisted on four of the Wildcats' first five field goals after intermission, helping the team stay afloat and not fall behind by any more than four. John Calipari kept Towns on the floor throughout the half despite some iffy defense and foul trouble, and he delivered with 17 points and a pair of assists in the period. Notre Dame would lead most of the way, but only at most by five.
A Towns three-point play pulled Kentucky within one with 4:08 to go. Pat Connaughton made a free throw to push the lead back to two, but Aaron Harrison broke out of his slump and nailed a three pointer with 3:08 to go to give UK its first lead since five minutes after halftime. Jerkin Grant answered with a three to give his team the lead back at 66-64 with 2:36 to go, but the Wildcat defense wouldn't allow the Irish to score again. Towns got a huge bucket to tie it with 1:14 to go, and Andrew Harrison sealed the win with a pair of free throws with six seconds to go.
Towns led all scorers with 25 points, and he either led or tied for the lead on his team with five rebounds, four assists, and two steals. Devin Booker was the only other Wildcat to reach double figures with 10, and Dakari Johnson had a remarkable three blocks for only eight minutes on the floor. Auguste led Notre Dame with 20 points, while Steve Vasuria had 16 and Grant had 15.
If Kentucky was going to lose a game in this tournament, this one felt like it. If Calipari had listened to his assistants and taken Towns out, the Cats very well could have lost it. For as well as Notre Dame's offense was rolling, the fact that the Irish could never build a lead of more than two or three that lasted for any amount of time really prevented them from being able to take this game. UK has come back from larger deficits than five, of course, but not being able to put any distance on the Wildcats was ultimately the thing that did them in.
Kentucky will play Wisconsin in its Final Four game, as the Badgers beat Arizona 85-78 to win the West regional. The teams met in last year's Final Four as well, with Aaron Harrison nailing a three pointer with seconds to go to give Big Blue the 74-73 win. Wisconsin is just as efficient on offense as Notre Dame is, but it has a couple of skilled big men and plays better defense. The Wildcats had just enough to beat the Irish last night, but they'll need more than that to advance to the national championship game.