Wildcats' Final Four skid ends
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Kentucky spent 13 consecutive 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 victory against second-seeded North Carolina Sunday in the NCAA tournament East Region final at Prudential Center.
The Wildcats (29-8) will play Connecticut at Reliant Stadium in Houston Saturday night 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 two 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.
A seldom used reserve a year ago who has flourished in his final season, Harrellson again held his own against North Carolina's bigger, more heralded front line, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds as Kentucky avenged a 75-73 loss to the Tar Heels in December in Chapel Hill, N.C.
It was a different story in New Jersey. And in March.
"I'm going to focus on what a wonderful group of kids and what a wonderful year it was," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "But it still doesn't take away the hurt that you feel today."
Tyler Zeller led the Tar Heels with 21 points and nine rebounds and Harrison Barnes added 18 points, but North Carolina fell behind early and struggled to keep the hot-shooting Wildcats in check.
"No question, I thought we were going to pull it out," Barnes said. "We've been through so many of these situations before. Losing didn't enter my mind until the final horn sounded."
Instead, it was Harrellson giving teammate Eloy Vargas a bear hug and Knight flexing at midcourt before gleefully cutting down the nets while Barnes and the Tar Heels trudged slowly off the floor.
It's a scene Kentucky has longed for -- a mission that began in earnest when the program lured Moon native 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.
"You play at Kentucky to raise banners, and I'm happy we did this," said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "I'm happy for these guys, because no one gave them a chance."
Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only men's basketball 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.
Barnhart said Calipari wanted his Final Four appearances with the Wildcats "to stick." Time will tell, though he already has restored the luster to a program that's slowly slipped off its perch over the past decade.
The win also gives the Final Four another blue-blood program.
Not that the Wildcats care about the seeding. Championship banners are what matter.
It's why Kentucky went after Calipari so aggressively, making him the highest paid coach in Division I.
First Published March 28, 2011 12:00 am