INDIANAPOLIS (MCT) – There was no Willis Reed moment. With crutches by his side, Willie Cauley-Stein watched his Kentucky teammates play Michigan in a game rich with potential to produce something enduring.
A trip to the Final Four seemed almost beside the point.
As so often happens in the NCAA Tournament, an unlikely hero emerged to spice the game with magic. Marcus Lee (only at Kentucky can the out-of-nowhere player be a McDonald's All-American) compensated for the absence of Cauley-Stein, who injured an ankle in Friday's victory over Louisville.
And the hero of Kentucky's victory 48 hours earlier returned for an encore.
Aaron Harrison, who did not score in the game's first 32 minutes, hit a high-arching three-pointer over Caris LeVert's blanketing defense to give Kentucky a 75-72 victory.
That shot – farther away from the basket and much more hotly contested than the winner against Louisville on Friday night – was the final bit of clutch play that saw four clutch scores in the final two minutes.
Getting back to the facts, Kentucky improved to 28-10 and advanced to the Final Four next weekend in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the Cats lost earlier this season to Baylor in a regular season marked by doubt and frustration.
Kentucky will take on Wisconsin (30-7) on Saturday at about 8:49 p.m. That game follows a semifinal featuring Connecticut (30-8) vs. Florida (36-2). The national championship game is Monday, April 7.
The Wildcats' semifinal meeting with Wisconsin will mark the teams' first meeting since 2003, when Kentucky beat the Badgers in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky's 16th trip to the Final Four is the program's third under Coach John Calipari. Kentucky won the national title in 2012 and reached the national semifinals in 2011.
Harrison finished with 12 points. Julius Randle led Kentucky with 16 points and 11 rebounds. James Young added 13 and Lee 10.
Michigan, the Big Ten champion, finished with a record of 28-9. Nik Stauskas led the Wolverines with 24 points.
A basketball axiom came to mind at halftime: Don't lose the game in the first half.
Thanks to a breakout performance by Lee, Kentucky managed to stay in the game. His five baskets (which equaled the number he'd scored since Nov. 25) steadied the Cats.
With Cauley-Stein on the sideline and needing the assistance of crutches, Lee got the call when starting center Dakari Johnson struggled early (a walk in the post and getting stripped on another chance inside the first three minutes).
Kentucky fell behind 9-2 early, but three put-back dunks by Lee in less than two minutes got Kentucky in rhythm. That two-minute burst equaled the three baskets the freshman from Antioch, Calif., had scored since Jan. 8.
Kentucky never led in the first half, thanks in large part to Stauskas. The Big Ten Most Valuable Player scored 18 points in the first half. His driving layup gave Michigan its largest lead, 32-22, with 5:10 left.
The Cats outscored Michigan 15-5 the rest of the half. Lee contributed a driving layup to complete his 10-point half, assuring his first double-digit scoring game since getting 10 against UT Arlington on Nov. 19.
Randle, who scored only one basket in the first 19 minutes-plus, tied at 37 with three seconds left on a short baseline pop.
Kentucky took its first lead with 18:47 left. Fittingly, a put-back (by Randle) put the Cats ahead 39-37.
The lead grew to as much as 45-39 on another second-chance opportunity (this time by Alex Poythress) with 17:17 left.
With the game tied at 55, Aaron Harrison hit his first shot. His three-pointer with 8:05 left put the Cats ahead 58-55. A driving banker by Andrew Harrison with the shot clock inside 10 seconds put Kentucky ahead 62-55 and prompted a Michigan timeout at the 6:24 mark.