At the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Wildcats beat Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — three teams they lost to during the season. In the NCAA Tournament third round, the Cats beat West Virginia to avenge last year’s NCAA Elite Eight loss. The win over No. 1 Ohio State here Friday was pay back to those on the NCAA selection committee who obviously blundered making UK only a No. 4 seed.
Now it’s on to Houston and a game with Connecticut, the same team that handed UK (29-8) its worst loss of the season when it beat the Cats 84-67 in Maui Nov. 24.
“I am a little bit surprised we're here. But not because of how my team was playing, I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off,” said a smiling Kentucky coach John Calipari after Sunday’s game. “It had nothing to do with my team. But if you ask me after we lost to Arkansas in overtime if we would be here, I would have said we got Florida, Vandy and at Tennessee left.
“They got together, they believed in themselves, and I kept telling them the whole time, ‘I believe in you. I don’t know why you don't believe in yourselves.’ We lost a lot of close games because of me, not just them now. We were still trying to figure out how to play. This is a brand new team. Three freshmen and three returning players who did not play much. So now all six of them together, I was still figuring out how do we play at the end of a game? What can I let them play through? Where do I have to stop the game? Who needs to be in at what times? So it was as much me as them.”
And that’s why Calipari deserves a lot of credit for what this team has done, too. Certainly Josh Harrellson’s rise to stardom has been remarkable. DeAndre Liggins — who hit the game-clinching 3-point shot — has become good on both ends of the court. Darius Miller has become consistent. Freshmen Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb have learned there is more to winning than scoring.
It was only fitting that in a game that helped restore UK’s tradition, the six key players scored between eight and 22 points and three — Knight, Miller, Harrellson — all had four assists.
Don’t forget, too, what this team lost off an Elite Eight team — five first-round draft picks, two seniors who had started two years before coming off the bench last season and a transfer. Throw in the ineligibility of Enes Kanter and there’s no way this team had a right to dream of a Final Four.
“Everyone wants to say you can't win with young players. I say if it is experience or talent and I have a choice, I'm taking talent and we will figure out how to make them play together, how to get them to defend, how to increase their toughness, how they have to play to win ballgames. Now if they're talented and experienced, you don't lose any games,” Calipari said.
“I'm proud of these guys. Here's what this comes down to for me. Josh Harrellson, are you kidding me? Forget we went to a Final Four, so what? Look what's happened for him. Darius Miller has totally changed his game. Look what's happened. DeAndre Liggins. Their future, their dreams. We want to win a couple more, but when you look at this, not only freshmen doing well, they've now established who they are and where they want to go and they have done it through this program and through this team, and I'm proud of that.”
He should be because Kentucky fans are. Several were seen crying inside the Prudential Arena after the game as they cheered for their Cats. Freshman Terrence Jones said he almost cried after the game when he hugged his mother and she was crying.
Don’t forget, too, that UK was coming off that win over No. 1 Ohio State that could have drained this team emotionally. Instead, UK came out the aggressor and led almost the entire game by refusing to buckle mentally or physically.
“Our team does a good job of celebrating, just being in the moment. After we won that game, it was onto the next one. We had a goal and that was to make it to the Final Four and compete for a championship. That doesn’t change now that we are going to the Final Four,” Knight, who had 22 points and was named the East Region’s most valuable player, said.
Harrellson, Liggins and Miller didn’t celebrate nearly as much as one might have expected. They enjoyed themselves, hugged family members and joked with each other. But there were no wild proclamations or outlandish behavior in the locker room.
Remember, those three were here three years ago when UK went to the NIT in that painful Billy Gillispie season that snapped Kentucky’s NCAA appearance streak. They were here last season when the Cats suffered that heartbreaking loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight when UK was considered the nation’s top team.
“Going to the NIT our first year was disappointing for us and all of our fans. They really were disappointed in us. And I think we had a better team than what we showed. We went to the NIT and we are here now and back in the Final Four,” Harrellson said. “We got Kentucky back, and a lot of people doubted us this year.
“A lot of people really didn't think we would be the team we are. We know we struggled early in the season, lost a couple of close games that we should have won. And you know, we really pulled it together as a team. And we're back now.”
Indeed they are in what has to be the most improbable Final Four run yet for a team at Kentucky.