Perfect mix creates Kentucky legend
Team that wasn't supposed to be here ends UK's Final Four drought with win vs. UNC
NEWARK, N.J. -- Clutching the regional trophy tight to his hip, Josh Harrellson stood amid the din of the Prudential Center, shaking his head in wonder.
This, he knew, wasn't supposed to happen. Not to him, certainly, and not to this team.
Kentucky was supposed to go to the Final Four a year ago, riding some of the best freshman talent ever assembled in one place.
That's long been John Calipari's game plan. He has built a career shredding the complexities of the college basketball game into one simple tenet: He who has the most talent wins.
And for the most part, his theory works. Calipari's teams win at a blistering rate, stockpiling victories like milk during a blizzard before the talent bolts for the greener pastures of NBA paychecks.
So how, then, to explain this: Harrellson, a guy who averaged all of 1.3 points per game last season, is going to the Final Four and DeMarcus Cousins didn't. DeAndre Liggins, a guy everyone told Calipari to run off when he took over for Billy Gillispie, hit the decisive bucket in the Wildcats' 76-69 win over North Carolina and not John Wall.
If basketball were a morality play, the moral at the end of this story might read simply: Talent isn't always enough.
"Last year's team had all the talent in the world, the most talented team in the entire NCAA tournament," Harrellson said. "But I'm not sure they had the same chemistry and will and heart as this team. This team is special."
It will be special for a long time in the commonwealth of Kentucky, not just because of what it accomplished but how it got there.
Kentucky idolizes its basketball players like no place else. Kentuckians love their stars, certainly, but they adore their workers.
Richie Farmer and John Pelphrey, anchors of the Unforgettables, will never buy a beer there for the rest of their lives.
Harrellson & Co. are just two games away from their own nickname.
This, really, is the perfect amalgamation of what Kentuckians love -- a team with a boatload of talent and even more, to borrow a Bill Raftery phrase, onions.
A crew that cascaded down the rankings and spent the entire season hearing what it wasn't (namely last season's team) now has put to bed a 12-season drought between Final Fours, the longest in Kentucky basketball history.
That it took the hard way to get here, through top-seeded Ohio State and No. 2 seed North Carolina, will only add to the lore.
"I've been dreaming of this moment my whole life, like anyone who lives in Kentucky does," said Maysville native Darius Miller. "I don't even know what I'm feeling right now. I really don't. It's been a long road to get here."
Indeed the typical autobahn cruise control that programs like Kentucky ride on had been nothing but a potholed state road of disaster. The nadir came two years ago when the Wildcats had to accept an NIT bid.
“That was enough to send Gillispie, already wildly unpopular in town, packing after just two years on the job.
Last year's team had all the talent in the world, the most talented team in the entire NCAA tournament. But I'm not sure they had the same chemistry and will and heart as this team. This team is special.” -- UK senior Josh Harrellson
Harrellson, Miller and Liggins are the lone holdovers from the Gillispie era.
People talk to them as if they're survivors of some sort of heinous boot camp.
"It was bad," Harrellson admitted. "But I actually wouldn't be here if it weren't for him and what I went through. He made me a mentally tougher player."
Carolina certainly became tougher this season, too. The Tar Heels suffered a program low point similar to UK's last season, settling for an NIT bid after a disastrous season. At the start of this season, things didn't look much better.
And then Roy Williams changed his point guard and things started to roll. The Tar Heels won 17 of their final 20, salvaging more than just the season but the state of the program.
"It's the most inadequate feeling in the world for a coach right now because I can't say anything to take the hurt away," Williams said. "And that's a really, really unpleasant feeling. I told them I didn't want them to forget that feeling. I wanted them to use it as a fuel to get better."
That has certainly worked for Kentucky.
Six weeks ago, this same group of players couldn't have won in a parking lot outside of Rupp Arena. The Wildcats were useless on the road, losing at Georgia, at Alabama, at Ole Miss, at Arkansas, at Vanderbilt and at Florida.
Winning the close ones? Forget about it. A combined 12 points decided those final five games.
"We needed to learn to believe in ourselves," Harrellson said. "For a while there, we didn't."
So how did that become this, a team that has been taken to the wire in every NCAA tournament game and yet emerged victorious?
After the last of those road losses, an overtime decision at Arkansas, the Wildcats found an identity. A team of privilege instead decided it was the underdog -- and yes, it sounds laughable.
Kentucky is about as much an underdog as the Yankees.
The players believed it, though. They decided everyone else had given up on them, so it was high time they started to believe in themselves.
"No one else thought we could do this, but we thought we could do this," Knight said. "I know a lot of people had written us off and didn't respect us. We heard how we could never be as good as last year's team, that we couldn't do what they did. So we decided we would just focus on ourselves."
That focus took aim in the SEC tournament and became eagle eye in the NCAA tournament. A team that could never win a close game has won only close games.
Knight hit the winner against Princeton with two seconds left; the Wildcats rallied from an 8-point halftime hole against West Virginia; Knight played the hero again against Ohio State; and here, Kentucky watched a one-time 11-point lead evaporate.
"The resiliency this team showed was unbelievable," Calipari said. "It got late, they tied it up and we didn't back away. I thought about calling timeouts, but I didn't want my guys to think I didn't believe in them. I wanted them to play through it."
And they did.
With 3:18 left, a North Carolina team that had looked overmatched for much of the game tied the score at 67 on two Tyler Zeller free throws.
That spelled disaster in the regular season for the Wildcats, an ungluing of the seams.
Here, here it meant nothing. Twenty-seven seconds after Zeller's free throws, Knight drilled a 3-pointer.
"The shot Brandon hit, I still picture it in my mind," Zeller said. "I think Dexter [Strickland] was guarding him. A fantastic job, had a hand in his face. It was a very tough shot and he knocked it down."
Carolina came back again, with Zeller scoring on a follow of a Strickland miss, and after Knight missed the front end of a one-and-one, UNC had the ball, down one with under a minute to play.
Kendall Marshall drove the lane but when he tried to float the ball over Liggins, Liggins reached up to block it. Harrellson grabbed the ball and on the Wildcats' next possession, Miller found Liggins standing in the corner at the arc. The junior drained the 3-pointer and the end of the game was little more than a formality.
"We have talent, but we also have desire," Liggins said. "You need talent. You need to work hard. You need discipline and you need passion to win. We have all of that."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.