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Kentucky 76, N. Carolina 69

Calipari, Wildcats topple Tar Heels to punch ticket

Once again, freshman Brandon Knight pushed Kentucky into the next round. Once again, freshman Brandon Knight pushed Kentucky into the next round. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)
By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / March 28, 2011

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NEWARK — This one was easier than the hold-your-breath game against Ohio State Friday night, sealed by Brandon Knight’s 15-foot jumper with five seconds left. It was more decisive than the second-round escape against Princeton, when Knight’s thank-heavens layup helped Kentucky avoid an early upset in a tournament where upsets have seemed to be the norm.

But this one meant much more, and it took a 3-pointer from deep in the corner by DeAndre Liggins with 37 seconds left to turn a 1-point Kentucky lead into a 4-point advantage, and ultimately a 76-69 victory over North Carolina yesterday before 18,278 fans at the Prudential Center.

And with that, Kentucky earned its first trip to the Final Four since 1998, and tied North Carolina for most NCAA Tournament victories (105) by taking the East Regional.

Next stop for John Calipari’s Wildcats is a date with Connecticut Saturday in Houston.

“The resiliency this team showed was unbelievable,’’ said Calipari. “It got late, they tied it up, and we didn’t back away. There were a couple of times I thought about calling timeouts and I did not want my guys to think that I didn’t believe in them. I wanted them to play through it. It was just a great fight, dogfight kind of game. And North Carolina does what they do and did not go away and made plays and tied it up. And it ends up being a great college basketball game.’’

Kentucky (29-8) was the No. 4 seed in the East, with a reputation for living on the edge. Yes, the Wildcats hadn’t lost since a 1-point overtime decision at Ar kansas Feb. 23, and yes, they had breezed through the Southeastern Conference tournament, but once they got into the one-and-done portion of their season, it started to get scary.

Princeton had answers for every puzzle Calipari tried to throw at it in Tampa, holding Kentucky to its lowest point total of the season, but succumbing on Knight’s game-winner, the only field goal of the night for the supertalented freshman.

It was almost the same situation Friday night against the tournament’s top overall seed, Ohio State. But the Wildcats clawed their way to a victory they weren’t even sure was possible without a perfect game.

North Carolina (29-8) provided a similar challenge. With a deep pool of talent, especially in the frontcourt, coach Roy Williams was expected to blend a collection of arms, legs, and muscle to wear down Kentucky senior center Josh Harrellson, who had been a prime catalyst in the win over Ohio State by supplying 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Harrellson, who had climbed out of Calipari’s doghouse earlier in the season by getting into game shape, was thoroughly outplayed by North Carolina center Tyler Zeller in a Dec. 4 meeting, a game the Tar Heels won by 2 points.

Although Zeller (21 points, nine rebounds) again won the statistical matchup, Harrellson (12 points, eight boards) got the win.

Kentucky built an 8-point lead (38-30) by halftime and expanded it to 11 points before the Tar Heels did what they always do when they find themselves in trouble.

Freshman forward Harrison Barnes (18 points) almost single-handedly wiped out an 8-point deficit in the final five minutes with a series of long jump shots and drives. When Zeller completed a 3-point play with 3:18 left, the game was tied at 67.

In such situations this season, Calipari has gone to Knight, and the 6-foot-3-inch guard got the call again, nailing a 3-pointer with 2:52 to go.

“I was confident,’’ said Knight, who had 22 points and was voted as the region’s Most Outstanding Player. “Like I said, me and my teammates are hard workers. We come early to practice to shoot. We stay after to shoot. But it wasn’t only me that made big shots. I think DeAndre hit the biggest shot of the game. It just shows how not only me, but the rest of our team can really make big-time shots.’’

Carolina’s viewpoint was naturally different.

“We get it tied and Brandon makes a huge three in front of their bench,’’ said Williams, shaking his head in disappointment.

Zeller countered with a basket to cut Kentucky’s lead to 70-69, but with the shot clock running down, Liggins hit the trifecta from deep in the right corner, and Kentucky’s lead only grew from there.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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