Kentucky beats North Carolina in East final
Monday, March 28, 2011
Kentucky spent 13 straight springs watching other schools play in the Final Four, a destination college basketball’s winningest program considers its birthright.
At most places, that’s hardly a drought.
In the Bluegrass, it’s a lifetime.
Now coach John Calipari and the Wildcats — finally — are two wins away from another national title.
Brandon Knight scored 22 points and fourth-seeded Kentucky advanced to the Final Four for the first time since its 1998 national title with a 76-69 win over secondseeded North Carolina on Sunday in the East Regional final.
The Wildcats (29-8) will play Connecticut on Saturday night in Houston after turning back a late surge by the Tar Heels (27-10), who erased an 11-point deficit before running out of gas in the final 2 minutes.
DeAndre Liggins added 12 points for Kentucky, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 37 seconds remaining to help lift the Wildcats.
“We got Kentucky back,” senior center Josh Harrellson said. “A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people really didn’t think we’d be the team we are. We really pulled it together as a team, and we’re back now.”
A season after falling a game short of the Final Four behind a roster filled with future NBA stars, the Wildcats are heading to the national semifinals for the 14th time behind the heady play of Knight and Harrellson’s emotional leadership.
Harrellson again held his own against North Carolina’s bigger, more heralded front line, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 21 points and nine rebounds and Harrison Barnes added 18 points, but the Tar Heels fell behind early and struggled to keep the hotshooting Wildcats in check.
Harrellson gave teammate Eloy Vargas a bear hug shortly after the buzzer sounded then gleefully cut down the nets.
It’s a scene the program has been waiting for years to celebrate, a mission that began in earnest when the program lured John Calipari away from Memphis in 2009.
He promised he wasn’t “the grand poobah” the day he signed his eight-year, $31.65-million contract, but there’s little doubt who rules the Bluegrass now.
Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only men’s coaches to lead three different programs to the Final Four. Calipari’s previous visits at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 were vacated by the NCAA for rules violations, but Calipari was not found liable in either instance.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Calipari wanted his Final Four appearances with the Wildcats “to stick.” Time will tell if they do, though he’s already restored the luster to a program that’s slowly slipped off its perch over the last decade.
The win also gives the Final Four another blueblood program, though with a twist.
Kentucky’s win means there will be no No. 1 or No. 2 seed since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.