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Kentucky rallies just in time to beat Notre Dame

Aaron Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts after

Aaron Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts after a play in the second half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Midwest Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball tournament at Quicken Loans Arena on March 28, 2015 in Cleveland. Credit: Getty Images / Gregory Shamus

CLEVELAND - When time ran out and Kentucky's winning streak still was breathing at 38-0 after a heart-stopping 68-66 victory over Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional final Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena, the truth came out.

Someone in the crowd of reporters informed Andrew Harrison that a Wildcats defense that many opponents have called the best they've ever faced never managed to get three consecutive stops in the second half until Notre Dame's final three possessions. Why then and not earlier?

"It was desperation," he said. "We had no choice or we were going to lose."

Sitting next to him, Kentucky coach John Calipari winced. "We don't ever talk about it," he said of the "D-word" before adding, "But they must have felt it, like it's time."

Did they ever. The Irish (32-6) scored a second-half knockdown, taking their largest lead at 59-53 on Steve Vasturia's three-pointer with 6:14 left. Suddenly, the prospect of ruining Kentucky's undefeated season became very real.

But the Wildcats fought back to lead for the first time in more than 11 minutes when Aaron Harrison buried a right-wing three-pointer with 3:15 left. Notre Dame's Jerian Grant responded with a bomb of a three-pointer for a 66-64 Irish lead moments later.

The Irish got the ball back on a turnover but missed a shot before a layup by Karl-Anthony Towns (career-high 25 points, including 17 points and 8-for-8 shooting in the second half) tied the score at 66 with 1:12 left. Willie Cauley-Stein then blocked a shot by Grant, and Calipari chose not to call a timeout, which would have allowed Notre Dame coach Mike Brey to set his defense.

With time running out, Andrew Harrison drove and drew a blocking foul on Demetrious Jackson with six seconds left. Harrison made both to produce the 20th lead change of the game and the final two-point margin.

Grant then took the inbounds pass and drove to the left corner, but now he was desperate to get his three-pointer over the leaping 7-foot Cauley-Stein. It missed everything as the final buzzer sounded.

It was only the third Kentucky game decided by five or fewer points this season, but the Wildcats passed the acid test. Not only did they get stops when they had to have them, but they made their final nine field-goal attempts after Cauley-Stein missed a tip-in with 12:05 left.

Kentucky advanced to the Final Four for the fourth time in five seasons and will face Wisconsin (35-3) in a rematch of last season's one-point Wildcats victory in the national semifinals.

"I'm really proud of my guys," Calipari said. "We were just scratching to stay in the game.

"It was nice to see Aaron do what Aaron does -- make a huge three . . . We were just fighting to stay in the game, to be honest, and it was nice to see how it finished for these kids."

Basketball historians recall that Notre Dame ended UCLA's record 88-game winning streak in January 1974, and this version of the Irish came out bent on preventing Kentucky from becoming the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.

"It was thrilling to be part of it; it lived up to the hype," Brey said. "We're extremely disappointed. We thought we had a great chance of beating them . . . We got a little stagnant offensively, but it's easy to get stagnant against that length. It takes its toll on you. We emptied the tank tonight."

Notre Dame was led by Zach Auguste's 20 points and nine rebounds, Vasturia's 16 points, Grant's 15 points and six assists and Pat Connaughton's eight points and nine rebounds.

The Irish's combination of brilliant passing to open lanes to the basket and great three-point shooting sparked a 13-4 run in the second half for a 46-42 lead they seemed determined not to relinquish, but they couldn't quite make it to the finish line.

Asked if Kentucky might benefit from such a pressure-packed game, Aaron Harrison said, "I would rather play well and win by a lot than play a close game like that. But yeah, it just showed us we never give up and we fight to the end just like any other team."

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