Sports

Dog or 'Cats? NCAA tournament offers a surprise final

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Well everyone had it wrong — you, me, the postman and the NCAA selection committee.

All that teeth-gnashing over tournament seeding has produced an NCAA championship game between a No. 7 and No. 8.

Let's hear it for a collective No. 15!

Monday night, though, Connecticut and Kentucky will be playing for the only number that counts No.1.

No. 8 Kentucky dramatically capped Saturday night with a 74-73 victory over No. 2 Wisconsin in the second NCAA semifinal game before a Final Four record crowd of 79,444 fans at AT&T Stadium.

After you combined that with No. 7 Connecticut's much less dramatic 63-53 win over top-seeded Florida, the Final Four became the Final Two.

The Kentucky kid, Aaron Harrison, did it again.

A week after the freshman guard sent Kentucky to the Final Four with his three-pointer to beat Michigan, Harrison put the dagger in Wisconsin when he sank the game-winning three against Wisconsin.

Harrison's shot came with 5.7 seconds left on his only three-point attempt of the night.

Wisconsin players said afterward Aaron had the “clutch gene.”

Kentucky Coach John Calipari described him as a basketball assassin.

“Guys who make game winners are not afraid to miss,” Calipari said. “He's not afraid to miss.”

Harrison shrugged his shoulders like it was no big deal.

“I don't know about the ‘clutch gene' thing,” he said. “I was happy because they [his teammates] were so excited.”

Only seconds before Harrison's shot, it looked like Wisconsin would get its first shot at a national title since winning in 1941.

The game was tied 71-71 with 16 seconds left when Traevon Jackson pump faked Andrew Harrison, Aaron's twin brother, into a foul beyond the three-point line.

Wisconsin had made all 17 of its foul shots when Jackson stepped to the line for his first attempt — which, on cue, he missed.

Jackson made his next two shots, setting up the chance Kentucky could take the lead with a three-pointer.

Guess what?

Jackson got one last chance to win it but missed a shot at the buzzer.

“Trey has hit shots like that his whole career,” Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky said of Jackson, “and we would not have had anyone else taking it.”

Blame Connecticut's clamp-down defense for putting everyone, including Florida, to sleep in the opener.

Wisconsin and Kentucky, however, grabbed everyone's attention.

Wisconsin controlled the first half, but Kentucky came out fast in the second, going from six points down to six points ahead in a matter of minutes.

The Badgers, though, answered with secret weapon Duje Dukan, averaging 2.7 points a game, who came off the bench to score eight points to give the lead back to Wisconsin. The first game saw Florida's 30-game winning streak come to a season-ending halt.

Connecticut became the first No. 7-seeded team to reach the title game since the NCAA started seeding schools 36 years ago.

The Huskies have a habit of winning in Texas, claiming previous national titles in San Antonio (2004) and Houston (2011).

Connecticut's reaching the title game this year, though, seemed preposterous after the Huskies were banned from last year's postseason for failure to meet NCAA academic standards.

It seemed preposterous when they lost at Louisville by 33 points a month ago and preposterous when they trailed St. Joseph's by three, with less than a minute left, in their first game of the NCAA tournament.

It didn't even seem likely Saturday when Florida raced to a 16-4 first half lead.

The Huskies, though, didn't want to go home.

“It's just going through the dark days believing,” second-year Coach Kevin Ollie said. “No matter if they're down, no matter if they're banned, no matter if they can't play in the NCAA tournament.”

The tenor of Saturday's game seemed to turn when DeAndre Daniels made a three pointer to cut the lead to 16-7.

It was like turning on the Huskies' pilot light. They went on an 11-0 run, with Daniels hitting another three to cut the lead to 16-15.

Connecticut's guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, suddenly started to clamp down on Florida's guards, turning Scottie Wilbekin, Michael Frazier and Kasey Hill into lamp posts.

Frazier scored Florida first points on a three-pointer and the team did not make another. The Gators finished one for 10.

Frazier took only two other shots in the game and Wilbekin was held to four points on two-for-nine-shooting.

Boatright said the game plan was to “disturb and make Scottie Wilbekin as uncomfortable as we can.”

Wilbekin ended up 0 for 3 from beyond the arc and had three turnovers.

Florida finished with only three assists while its two point guards, Wilbekin and Hill, had seven of the team's 11 turnovers.

Florida trailed by three at the half, but many thought the Gators' strength and experience would wear Connecticut down.

Florida did pull to within 41-38.

“When we cut it down to three, I thought we were there,” Gators center Patric Young said.

Connecticut, though, shifted into its finishing gear and pushed the lead back to as many as 12.

Napier, the story went, was going to have to carry this team the way Kemba Walker did to the 2011 title.

Napier, though, didn't have to do it all Saturday. He controlled the game despite scoring only seven points. He did have six assists and four steals.

Three other Huskies scored in double figures, led by Daniels' 20. Boatright had 13 and Niels Giffey added 11

“We have been saying all year we are a complete team,” Boatright said.

Connecticut shot 55.8% (24 for 43) and held Florida to 38.8% (19 for 49).

You could say the Huskies pitched a complete game.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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