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Wildcats sink Wolverines: Freshmen carry Kentucky past Michigan, into Final Four

Kentucky Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison (2) shoots and makes a three-point basket with 4.3 seconds remaining in the second half of Sunday’s midwest regional final in Indianapolis against the Michigan Wolverines at Lucas Oil Stadium. USA Today Sports photo

INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison had a harsh but correct assessment of his first half performance Sunday.

“I wasn’t there for my team,” he said.

That changed in the last four minutes and 19 seconds. Harrison drilled three critical 3-pointers, including the game winner over Michigan guard Caris LeVert with 2.6 seconds left, and the eighth-seeded Wildcats beat the second-seeded Wolverines 75-72 to capture the Midwest Region championship in Lucas Oil Stadium.

Kentucky (28-10) will meet West Region champion Wisconsin on Saturday night in a national semifinal at Arlington, Texas.

Before the season, many expected the Wildcats and their plethora of freshmen — seven of the eight players Sunday who saw action were in high school at this time a year ago — to reach the Final Four.

However, Kentucky went about it in a way that gave its huge following reason for worry. The Wildcats grew more inconsistent in the regular season’s final month, bottoming out March 1 with a loss at lowly South Carolina during a game in which coach John Calipari was tossed and then skipped the postgame press conference.

However, Calipari made some tweaks before the Southeastern Conference tournament, and his team has played to its potential since, going 6-1, with the only loss a one-pointer to top-seeded Florida in the SEC title game.

“I guess I saw it coming,” Harrison said of the turnaround. “(The South Carolina game) was a bad loss, but we knew what we could do.”

Kentucky’s potential was apparent the past three games, all dramatic wins in which victory wasn’t assured until the very end. The Wildcats beat Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan by a combined 10 points.

“All three of those games have been epic,” Calipari said. “We’ve been down by 10 points in every game, but this team seems to play better when it falls behind. They bow their necks and they just play.”

No. 7 UConn 60, No. 4 Michigan State 54

NEW YORK — Shabazz Napier never wavered about transferring out of Connecticut, despite a disappointing sophomore year and a junior season when the school was ineligible for the NCAA postseason.

Napier, the Huskies’ senior point guard, was rewarded for his commitment, scoring a game-high 25 points to lead UConn into the Final Four with a 60-54 win over Michigan State in the East Regional final on Sunday before 19,499 at Madison Square Garden.

The Huskies secured their fifth trip to the Final Four. They will play Florida, a team that UConn beat 65-64 on Dec. 2.

Sophomore guard Gary Harris led the fourth-seeded Spartans (29-9) with 22 points and senior forward Adreian Payne chipped in with 13.

The 6-1 Napier was named the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player. He averaged 23.2 points in the four tournament games and was a combined 14 of 15 from the line in the East Regional semifinals and final.

“I felt I didn’t play to my capabilities that (sophomore) year and I wanted to show my teammates and the fans that I’m going to come back strong and come back better,” he said. “That’s the reason why I didn’t transfer. I felt like I owed Connecticut something.”

Napier was particularly effective late in the game, scoring five of the Huskies’ final seven points.

Payne sank two free throws with 57.6 seconds to play to bring Michigan State to within 53-51, but Napier was fouled by Michigan State guard Keith Appling attempting to shoot a 3-pointer on the Huskies’ next possession. Napier sank all three shots with 50 seconds left for a 56-51 cushion.

Appling, who was bothered by a sore wrist all season, fouled out on the play.

“I told him (Appling) I didn’t think he fouled him (Napier),” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I thanked him (Appling) for his four years. He’s been through a lot this year and never got back to the guy he was in the first half. I just felt for him.”

Payne scored five straight points on a 3-pointer and a mid-range jumper to extend the Spartans’ lead to 32-23 3:28 into the second half.

Two free throws from Napier tied it at 32-32 with 12:38 to play and a traditional three-point play from forward DeAndre Daniels gave the Huskies a 35-32 edge with 11:47 remaining.

A layup from Michigan State forward Branden Dawson cut the UConn lead to 37-36 with 9:40 to go, but the Huskies used a 12-3 run to extend their lead to 49-39 with 6:20 left.

A driving runner from Appling, his first points of the game, cut the Huskies’ lead to 51-49 with 2:40 left, but Napier countered with a fall-away jumper to make it 53-49 with 1:24 on the clock.

“Coach (Kevin Ollie) told us to keep our composure,” Napier said. “They made their run and it was time for us to make ours. And when coach looks at me a certain way, I just know I got to be more aggressive and I got to open shots when my teammates got me the ball and we just kept running.”

Harris deposited two consecutive 3-pointers to provide Michigan State with its first lead of the first half, 22-21, with 3:33 remaining and guard Denzel Valentine’s trey from the right elbow with 23 seconds left allowed the Spartans to take a 25-21 halftime lead.

UConn missed its last seven shots from the field in the first half, three by Napier, who scored eight points in the opening 20 minutes.

The Huskies opened a 12-2 lead 4:48 into the game, helped by four turnovers by the Spartans. Michigan State went 5:49 without a basket until a layup from Harris with 11:53 left in the half ended the drought.

The Spartans were plagued by 16 turnovers, one shy of their season high. The Huskies took advantage, scoring 18 points off the miscues.

“We looked tired to me,” Izzo said. “Maybe the whole season wore on us. I know it wasn’t anything they did on purpose, but it looked like we were a little bit fatigued.

“We sure tried to do things the right way.”