INDIANAPOLIS — Talent earned the Kentucky Wildcats the No. 1 ranking at the beginning of the year. Toughness might take them back to the same spot at the end.
Saddled by the NCAA selection committee with a No. 8 seed, Kentucky was downright ruthless as it navigated the toughest road of any of the Final Four teams. A No. 1 seed, the defending national champion and last year's runner-up are all gone because of Kentucky, whose Kiddie 'Cats have become a hardened, almost defiant bunch these last two weeks.
No team had ever beaten three of the previous Final Four teams, let alone ousted both the defending champion and runner-up.
"We're just a tough group of young guys, doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore," Aaron Harrison said after his three-pointer with four seconds left Sunday wrapped up a 75-72 victory against Michigan and a spot in the Final Four.
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"We just try to go out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game, and we just fight so hard."
There's no question the Wildcats have a huge advantage in talent, more loaded than the rest of the Final Four teams put together. Heck, some NBA teams can't stack up with Kentucky right now.
But talent is no guarantee of success, as the Wildcats learned the hard way this season. The first few losses were forgivable, coming against ranked and more experienced teams. But then the Southeastern Conference season started, and Kentucky was losing to teams such as LSU and Arkansas.
By the time the Wildcats lost March 1 at South Carolina, most folks had written them off. They were a collection of stars, not a team.
"It's hard when all seven (freshmen) scored 28 a game in high school, to give up something," coach John Calipari said. "When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier. They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And, all of a sudden, this is what you have.
"But it took us four months."
Calipari said earlier that he knew his team would eventually get it. But he didn't know if the season would last long enough for that to happen.
Looming in the second game of the NCAA tournament was No. 1 seed Wichita State, which hadn't lost since last year's Final Four. But the Wildcats took them down in an epic game, ending the Shockers' 35-game winning streak in the process.
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Next on the Wildcats' list was Louisville, the defending national champion and Kentucky's bitter in-state rival. All Kentucky did Friday night was erase Louisville's seven-point lead with 4:33 to play, winning it on another monster three by Aaron Harrison in the closing seconds.
Last came Michigan, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, last year's national runner-up and possibly the most dangerous team still playing with its stylized offense, versatility and experience. The Wildcats fell behind by 10 in the first half, and there were flashbacks to that group of guys who were still trying to figure out how to be a team.
"I hate to say this: They played better when they're down, and I don't know why," Calipari said. "They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their neck. And they want to win. They have a will to win."
Back-to-back Michigan baskets had pared Kentucky's lead to one with 4:47 to play. Less than 30 seconds later, Harrison drilled a three-pointer from the deep right corner. Two minutes later, Harrison hit another to put Kentucky ahead by five.
Michigan tied it again after a Glenn Robinson III's three-pointer and Jordan Morgan's tip-in with 27 seconds left. But with four seconds to play, Harrison got the ball, squared up and let fly from NBA range.
"That's the whole thing about making those kind of plays: You can't be afraid to miss," Calipari said. "That's where he is right now."
Calipari's latest crop of Wonder Kids arrived as full-blown superstars, the expectations on them as lofty as their skills. But they were quickly humbled and came back the better for it.
"When the going gets tough," Alex Poythress said, "we just grit our teeth and keep pushing."
Talent and toughness. Now Kentucky truly does have the makings of a No. 1 team.
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