ARLINGTON, Texas — John Calipari insisted last that his basketball team never bought into 40-0.
Never bought into the hype. Into the T-shirts and web sites and preseason predictions of perfection.
“Our kids needed to be coached, roles needed to be defined, they couldn’t do it by themselves,” Calipari said. “They were so young.”
They still are.
They’re still making freshmen mistakes at critical times, still playing oblivious to the moment.
Most importantly, they’re still alive.
Kentucky didn’t produce a flawless record this season, but it has advanced to within 40 minutes of a ninth national championship, the result of a thrilling 74-73 win over Wisconsin in the national semifinals Saturday before a Final Four-record crowd of 79,444 at AT&T Stadium.
The Wildcats, an eight seed, meet Connecticut on Monday night.
That’s right. A seventh seed will wear white jerseys in a national title game.
Kentucky and its mammoth following will celebrate the idea today that one brother bails out the other in the most stressful of times. They will rejoice in the fact that while Andrew Harrison committed a very freshman-like mistake in fouling on a 3-point attempt in a tie game with 16.4 seconds left, his twin Aaron hit what proved to be the game-winning 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds remaining.
The same Aaron Harrison whose 3-pointer knocked out Michigan in the Elite Eight and also made a corner 3 to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16.
“I think the Michigan shot was probably a little harder with more of a hand in my face,” Harrison said. “You just can’t be scared to miss. I thought this one was going to hit the back rim and rattle out. I’m just happy it went in. I like winning. This is why I came to Kentucky.”
Said Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker: “He’s got that clutch gene.”
The thought beforehand was that Kentucky was too big, too strong and too athletic for Wisconsin, and the fact the Wildcats had 11 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points sort of proved that theory.
But here’s the thing: Arizona was also bigger and stronger and more athletic.
Wisconsin sent those Wildcats home in the Elite Eight.
“We hung on,” Calipari said. “Heck of a game. I’ll tell you what, late in the game, our guys have an unbelievable will to win. Different guys making different plays. Then you have Aaron, the assassin, making the dagger shot.”
And yet the Badgers had every chance to win, including a last-second jump shot by point guard Traevon Jackson. It missed, as did the first of three free-throws he shot after being fouled by Andrew Harrison in a 71-71 game.
Harrison, who attempted and missed a 3-pointer when he was supposed to drive the previous possession, fell for a shot fake, the staple of Wisconsin’s offense.
The Badgers were 17 of 17 from the line at that point.
They finished 19 of 20.
The lone miss made it a two-point margin for Kentucky to attack instead of likely having Wisconsin intentionally foul in those final seconds had it been up three.
The one miss set up Aaron Harrison from the left wing.
It set up a chance for one brother to pick up another in their home state and on college basketball’s biggest stage, one freshman to compensate for another’s mistake.
Kentucky and Connecticut will offer the highest combined seeds to meet for the title, and it’s the second time in three seasons Calipari will bring a group of incredibly gifted youngsters (seven of his top eight players are freshmen) to a season’s final game.
For the Badgers and their first trip to the Final Four under 13-year coach Bo Ryan, there will linger for weeks and months and perhaps years the vision of a freshman rising into the air and sticking the shot that sent them home.
“I watch all the games back,” Ryan said. “You can always learn something. But they can play that as many times as they want, it will still go in. I don’t think that it’s going to not go in. So anybody that watches it more than once, I feel sorry for them. If you know the result, why would you?
“I take that back. I watched ‘Dumb and Dumber’ about 20 times, and I might watch it a 21st when I get home. And I know the ending.”
Kentucky’s ending comes Monday, win or lose.
It won’t include a mark of 40-0. It won’t be perfect.
But it could still be magical.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.