NCAA Final Four: James Young contributes to Kentucky’s winning ways

Kentucky forward James Young drives between Wisconsin's Ben Brust (1) and Traevon Jackson (12) in the first half Saturday night.
(Harry E. Walker / McClatchy-Tribune)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky’s James Young kept his fellow freshmen in the game, his grit on defense only overshadowed by his scoring spurts that answered every salvo from Wisconsin.

Turns out that Kentucky Coach John Calipari wants even more from the often overshadowed Young.

After scoring a game-high 17 points in the Wildcats’ 74-73 victory Saturday night and sending Big Blue Nation through to a national title showdown with Connecticut, Young could only force a tight smile when Calipari made the boldest of forecasts.

“James Young has had 25-point games, which I’ll predict he’ll have in this Monday night’s game,” Calipari said, tilting his head and gazing down the long table at his young forward.

“You listening to me?” Calipari asked. “I’m putting a positive seed in your mind right now.”


The headlines will go to those unflappable Harrison twins, Andrew who passed to his brother Aaron for the three-pointer with 5.7 seconds left that proved to be the difference. But both of them owe Young a considerable debt of gratitude for giving them that chance.

He scored nine of his points in the first half of the semifinal, when nothing seemed to be going right, and then jumpstarted the second-half run that forced the game down to the wire.

And gave those Harrisons a chance to win it.

“Aaron hit another big shot for us,” Young said. “He saw his man play off him a little bit, and he just took it. He’s been taking all our big shots for us.”

When the Badgers’ Traevon Jackson missed a pull-up jumper at the buzzer, and the Wildcats’ Marcus Lee corralled the ball off the backboard, it was Young who led the charge to engulf Aaron Harrison at midcourt. He was right in the midst of a happy scrum that made a team full of teenagers — Young is one of five freshman starters — look like giddy schoolchildren.

“Really, I was just trying to bring a lot of energy to the defense end,” Young said with a smile, “slapping the ground and trying to pick us up.”

Eighth-seeded Kentucky (29-10), which caught fire during the SEC tournament and has kept up the run throughout March Madness, will play seventh-seeded UConn in a surprising title game.

The Huskies beat overall No. 1 seed Florida 63-53 earlier in the night. Now they’ll face the preseason No. 1 Wildcats, who fell out of the rankings later in the year, but have saved their best play for the postseason.

“We play seven freshmen, folks,” Calipari said, “and they’re all performing, in that stage, under those lights, which is an amazing story.”

Including Young, who is too often relegated to supporting actor in favor of bruising forward Julius Randle and the Harrison twins. But perhaps it was inevitable that when things were falling apart for Kentucky, it was Young who kept holding his team together.

Praised by his teammates for his laid-back demeanor, Young scored two baskets on a single trip down floor that put a charge in his scuffling team.

He first scored on a driving layup while getting fouled, and then after missing the free throw, wound up with the ball in his hands again. Young calmly knocked down a jump shot from the wing, drawing Kentucky within striking distance and sending its fans into a tizzy.

Young added two free throws to cap the 15-0 surge that gave Kentucky the lead.

From that point on, the game turned into the kind of back-and-forth classic that has become a hallmark of this topsy-turvy NCAA tournament.

Young’s basket with just less than eight minutes to go got Kentucky within 64-62, and his defense down the stretch helped the Wildcats hang on when Wisconsin threatened to pull ahead.

When the final buzzer sounded, and the raucous celebration began, Young was right in the middle of it, just as he’d been in the middle of things all night long. “We just had to pick it up,” Young said. “We just have the will to win.”