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Kentucky to Final Four Because of Coolness in Dramatic Tournament Run

INDIANAPOLIS — Aaron Harrison could have shot from anywhere on the floor at Lucas Oil Stadium, and it would have gone in. Not in the first 32 minutes of Kentucky’s 75-72 triumph over Michigan in the Elite Eight on Sunday, mind you: He had missed the only four shots he took and was an afterthought in a game that would already clearly trump the last two—the wins over Wichita State and Louisville, if you forgot, which you didn’t—in dramatics, even if observers weren’t yet privy to the outcome. He never lost his confidence, and he started making shots.

So when his twin brother, Andrew, handed the ball off to him at about 20 feet and seven seconds left, Aaron Harrison could have shot right then facing what direction he was facing, and it would have gone in. He could have dribbled away and squared his feet right up against the half-court line, and it would have gone in. What actually happened was, he took the ball near the left corner and curled right off his brother’s handoff, drifting from the three-point arc just a bit as he headed toward the top of the key. He crossed over left, which surprised Caris LeVert, his defender just enough. Harrison shuffled back a little bit, creating enough distance between he and LeVert, and fired away. The shot fell in with 2.6 seconds left.

“That’s the longest three I’ve ever looked at,” Alex Poythress said.

No matter where Harrison was when he let go, its invisible string to the middle of the basket was already tied taut on both ends. Kentucky has pulled on that line each of its last three games, as dramatic and challenging a run through to the Final Four as one could imagine. Harrison hit the shot that ultimately beat Louisville, a corner three off Julius Randle’s ingenious dish with 39 seconds left. That shot was never going to miss, even with Russ Smith flailing toward him in desperation, and neither was Sunday’s, even though LeVert was so close to tipping the shot, Aaron Harrison said LeVert caught his hand fairly early in his follow-through.

Jon Hood wasn’t sure about Sunday’s shot’s odds when it went up. Harrison’s wind-up was a little different than usual, as if he were rushing. It didn’t instantly strike Hood, a fifth-year senior now going to his third Final Four, as a great look. The next thing Hood knew, Brian Long had leaped on his back in celebration.

In a timeout with 27 seconds left, Calipari’s directive to Andrew Harrison was pretty clear:

“He just told me to give Aaron the ball, to be honest,” Andrew Harrison said. “Yes, sir. You don’t got to tell me twice.”

It’s difficult to look back at Kentucky’s loss at South Carolina on March 1 and its 19-point loss at Florida on March 8, and then the dots and follow the bracket all the way to where it is now. This is not the same team that went through the motions so many times this season, only animating briefly to make some of its 10 losses (and some of its 24 regular-season wins, too) to appear within respectable margins. That team was apathetic and would desperately fight back only close enough to fall short—with the exception of the overtime win against LSU on Feb. 22—clearly over its head as it went.

Kentucky’s rapid maturation since then seems to have come as a result of Sinatra-level coolness, starting with Calipari and on down to his players. Frank Sinatra earned every bit of his legacy, at least musically, because he was always under the most control during a song’s climax, when the band had been building momentum behind him and the melody had been ranging higher until the drive and the register got where they needed to go so he could take over in the way only he could. Young musicians don’t realize the power that lies in control, nor do they understand how difficult it is to harness. Kentucky didn’t, either.

And now, the Wildcats have ultimate control when it’s most needed. It’s an arbitrary endpoint, sure, but in the last five minutes against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan, the Wildcats were 6 of 10 from two-point range, 5 of 6 from three-point range, 16 of 20 on free throws, and they committed five turnovers in a total of 25 possessions. That’s 1.72 points per possessions, which sits somewhere in the range of remarkable to damn near impossible.

That Kentucky did what it did Sunday without Willie Cauley-Stein, with Marcus Lee pitching in 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in his place as if Cauley-Stein weren’t sitting on the bench with a walking boot on his ankle, maxed-out crutches that were still too short helping him around, and with his glasses on and a hooded sweatshirt underneath his No. 15 jersey—that also hovers somewhere in that aforementioned range of probability. All of this does, really, in the context of this season. In the vacuum of the past three weeks, though, perhaps this was the only way the trip to Indianapolis could have ended. Aaron Harrison’s shot was going to go in, and now Kentucky is going to the Final Four.

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

Photo: Andrew Harrison hugs his mother, Marian, following Kentucky’s Final Four-clinching win over Michigan on Sunday. (Photo by James Pennington)