Sunday, March 27, 2011 Updated: March 31, 9:40 AM ET
Cats come together, claw into Final Four
By Kieran Darcy ESPNNewYork.com
NEWARK, N.J. -- Brandon Knight was standing at midcourt, mobbed by reporters, wearing a Kentucky baseball cap with a Final Four sticker on the bill as his teammates scaled a ladder nearby, cutting down one of the nets hanging from the baskets at the Prudential Center.
And yet, the 19-year-old freshman didn't look the least bit surprised.
Thousands of college basketball fans around the country are surprised. But it happened -- these No. 4-seeded Wildcats are headed to Houston and this year's Final Four, after a hard-fought 76-69 victory over No. 2 seed North Carolina.
"I continued to trust in my teammates, and they continued to trust in me," Knight said on the court afterward. "And this is where we ended up at."
Brandon Knight's team lost four freshmen to the NBA draft ...
Knight was named the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player -- and rightfully so. The 6-foot-3 point guard from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., had a game-high 22 points against the Tar Heels, including five 3-pointers. That followed Friday night's win over top seed Ohio State, in which Knight scored only nine points, but buried the game-winning jumper with 5.4 seconds left.
"From the beginning of the game, Coach just told me to be aggressive," Knight said. "So every time I got it I wanted to push it and see what we could get in transition. If not, try to attack the basket. And guys were just being really aggressive tonight. You could tell they really wanted it."
Yes, you could. Kentucky was the better, more aggressive team from the opening tip on Sunday, jumping out to a 38-30 halftime time lead thanks to a swarming defense and burying six of its 11 first-half 3-point attempts. North Carolina made several mini-runs in the second half, even tying the game up at 67 with 3:18 remaining. But Kentucky just continued to bury big shots when it needed 'em -- the biggest two being a Knight trey with 2:51 left that broke the tie, and another by junior guard DeAndre Liggins with 35.6 seconds left that turned a 70-69 lead into 73-69.
"The resiliency this team showed was unbelievable," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "It got late, they tied it up, and we didn't back away. ... It was just a great fight -- a dogfight kind of game."
"Guys really want to step up, and guys are confident in themselves, and we're confident in each other as a group," Knight said.
This is a very different group than the Kentucky team of a season ago. That edition, which went 35-3, featured five players (four freshmen and a junior) who all went on to be first-round NBA draft picks when they decided to leave after the season, headlined by the No. 1 overall pick, John Wall. But that team, despite its tremendous talent, did not get to the Final Four -- the No. 1-seeded Wildcats were picked off by West Virginia in the Elite Eight.
This season's Kentucky team, 28-9 and a No. 4 seed, features a regular rotation of only six players -- three new freshmen, combined with three veterans, none of whom played more than 21 minutes or averaged more than six points per game a season ago.
And yet these Cats are going to play UConn on Saturday night for a spot in the national championship game.
The returning players spoke after the win Sunday about how different this season's team is.
"It definitely was supposed to happen last year. I think we had the most talented team in the NCAA by far last year, position by position," said Josh Harrellson, the team's lone senior (who played just four minutes per game last season, but had 12 points and 8 rebounds on Sunday, and was named to the East Regional All-Tournament Team). "This year, I just think we play with more heart and more passion than we did last year. More of a team game -- we're unselfish and we share the ball so well."
"It's a lot, lot better," said Liggins (also named to the East Regional All-Tournament Team), when asked about the team's chemistry this season as opposed to last season. "Ain't that many egos involved. ... Everybody knows their role, and everybody likes each other. Everybody gets along. Everybody works hard in the gym."
... then ended the longest Final Four drought in Kentucky's storied history.
"We've gained a lot of trust in each other, we've gained a lot of love for each other, we've gained a lot of confidence in each other," said junior guard Darius Miller. "We're really close -- but it took us awhile to get to this point."
It did take awhile -- and naturally so, considering this is a brand-new team. Over a 10-game stretch from Jan. 18 to Feb. 23, Kentucky lost five of its 10 games -- by a combined total of 11 points. There were three two-point losses, and a one-point defeat in overtime, as this collection of players tried to figure out how to close out games.
"After that streak, I think we all kinda buckled down and bought into everything," Miller said. "That's when our mind got made up."
It started on Feb. 26 with a home win over No. 13-ranked Florida, and Kentucky has never looked back, peeling off 10 straight wins -- six of them coming against top-25 opponents. And it's been a team effort. Five of those six regulars scored in double figures on Sunday against North Carolina. And all six deserve credit for making Kentucky No. 10 in the country in field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 39.1 percent per game.
The three freshmen -- Knight, forward Terrence Jones and guard Doron Lamb -- lead the team in scoring. But Harrellson was the MVP of Friday night's win over Ohio State (17 points, 10 rebounds). And Liggins hit the biggest shot of the game on Sunday.
Even their coach admitted to being surprised by what has happened in his postgame news conference.
"When I saw the board, the seedings -- yeah, I am a little bit surprised we're here," Calipari said. "But not because of how my team was playing, I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off.
"I always liked this team, I always believed in this team," Calipari added. "They [finally] got together and believed in themselves."
John Wall & Co. couldn't get Kentucky to a Final Four for the first time since 1998. Brandon Knight & Co. are the group that ended the longest Final Four drought in this storied program's history.
"A lot of people said we would never do what last year's team did, and we never focused on it," Knight said at midcourt Sunday night. "We focused on ourselves. We just worked hard throughout the season, through the ups and downs, and this team stayed with each other."
If this team wins two more games in Houston, a few more people will be surprised.
But not Brandon Knight. And the same goes for his five running mates.