Onions, innocence and Drake: Kentucky's rollicking tournament run pushes to title game

Jamie Squire

The Wildcats are going to the national championship game thanks to another game-winning shot from Aaron Harrison.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

ARLINGTON, Texas  -- Kentucky can't keep winning games like this, can it? This is not sustainable. The Wildcats will play for the national championship Monday, about 48 hours removed from their fourth NCAA Tournament win in a row of five points or fewer. No team has ever done that in the tournament's history. Whether youthful naïvety or a giant's confidence is the source of Kentucky's run to the title game is irrelevant; it's probably a little of both, and we'll never know exactly how the cocktail is rationed. All we can responsibly consider is that which happened on the court.

Down two with 15 seconds left, Andrew Harrison brought the ball up the court. The team huddled before Traevon Jackson's three foul shots, and the Wildcats' point guard was given the directive to try for a layup, feed Dakari Johnson in the post or get the ball to Aaron Harrison wherever he happened to be. So Andrew drove left and ran out of room, throwing to Johnson on his way out of bounds. Johnson bobbled the ball a bit and gave it straight back to Andrew.

"He was smiling when he was dribbling," Johnson said. "I don't know. I was thinking there's no way he's about to pull up for three."

Andrew fed Aaron at about the same spot on the floor where Aaron beat Michigan in the Elite Eight, or maybe even a touch deeper. He was firmly in NBA range. Josh Gasser had his heels on the three-point line and his arms spread wide, making sure Aaron didn't use those last nine seconds to blow past him and get an easy look at the rim. But after what happened against Louisville in the Sweet 16 — Harrison delivered the winner in that game, a corner three with 39 seconds left — and then against Michigan, his decision already seemed made. Harrison knew that, and Gasser should have known that.

Harrison's subtle expression as he sized up his man struck Johnson.

"He was smiling when he was dribbling," Johnson said. "I don't know. I was thinking there's no way he's about to pull up for three. But he did it. I was like, ‘Damn.'"

NCAA Tournament Championship

Several other players also said they saw Harrison's pre-emptive grin. He's taken this tournament by force and made it his. In Kentucky's last three games, he's 4-of-4 from three-point range after the final media timeout, and three of those makes were game winners. He hasn't tried to do too much down the stretch, even though the Wildcats have been sprinting recklessly down a tightrope their last 160 minutes and could have used the stability he provides somewhere along the way. He's become selective and poised in the postseason after being neither of those things for much of his freshman year, and that's made him deadly. Gasser challenged him to hit one shot from 25 feet Saturday or go home for good, and Aaron Harrison looked him in the face and smiled back at him.

Harrison_medium

★★★

The Wildcats were celebrating in their locker room, cooling off before post-game interviews when the levity of their accomplishments materialized. Drake was outside the locker room, and he wanted to talk to the team. Drake has been in the periphery of Kentucky fandom since John Calipari's first team in 2010. That team had John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, and Drake gravitated toward their personalities. Drake was still an up-and-comer himself, having yet to release his first full-length album. It seemed like a good fit. That team dissipated, and Drake became a mainstream superstar when Thank Me Later came out a month after Wall and Cousins (and Eric Bledsoe, too) lost in the Elite Eight and declared for the NBA Draft. After making a few appearances at Rupp Arena and performing on UK's campus in 2010, Drake wasn't around much after that team dissolved, even if its success was soon outdone.

As much as Drake poked his head in back then, only fifth-year senior Jon Hood was around in those days. Willie Cauley-Stein was a high school sophomore back then, and he had never met, nor was he expecting to ever meet, one of his favorite rappers. He said Sunday was the first time in his life he had been star-struck.

"It's crazy, because people get star-struck from us," Cauley-Stein said. "You're wondering why they're staring at you like that, and then Drake walks in, and you're like, ‘Oh my gosh. Drake's in the building.'"

Drake didn't say much. He told them they've written their own story to this point, that they now get to write the ending, and he'll be around Monday to see it through. What resonated with Cauley-Stein most was how smooth he was throughout his entire interaction with everyone in the locker room.

"The way he talks is just, like, dang. He's really like this in real life. You think it's just a front in his songs, but he really talks like that in real life. He's just so smooth. You almost want to mirror yourself after it, it's so smooth. That's the way I feel."

Drake kept it short, dapped everyone on the team and left. "And you try to try to act cool, you know what I’m saying? ‘It’s Drake, whatever.’ But inside, you’re like, ‘Yo, that’s Drake. I just dapped up Drake. That’s crazy.’" Seconds later, Cauley-Stein admitted to dapping Drake twice.

★★★

Until this tournament, Kentucky was a team full of talent that publicly insisted it still had time to cure all the ills that sickened it to the point of all those bad losses. Ask the Wildcats now, and they'll all say the same thing: they weren't bluffing back then. The offense that's now unstoppable when it wants to be was that way on the practice floor, but for some reason, it wouldn't make it to games.

This team playing now doesn't seem like it could ever have stumbled. Its ultimate confidence has rewarded it without fail, from the coach whose glow is as sincere as ever on down to freshmen reserves like the rangy 6'9 Derek Willis, who didn't play Saturday but earned praise from across the locker room for his role in helping Kentucky's big men to prepare for Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky. After Willis torched Johnson, Alex Poythress, Julius Randle and Marcus Lee in practice all week playing like Kaminsky, Wisconsin's big man had eight points on seven attempts.

"This is part two. It just shows they’re growing," Johnson said. "The balls are growing."

Somewhere between Calipari and Willis was Aaron Harrison. He already earned a lifelong legacy in Lexington hitting the shot to send Kentucky to the Final Four, and Johnson was candid about it then. "He's got big nuts, to be honest," Johnson said Sunday. "He can't even walk right now."

As improbable as it was for the Wildcats to make it this far — especially considering the dramatics they've been through to have survived any one of the last four games, let alone all four — here they are, a team full of starstruck kids with a giant's confidence and a late-game weapon who doesn't have to say much to get his point across. Aaron Harrison's attitude toward improbable is to stare it down and smile, and his legend is following accordingly.

"This is part two. It just shows they’re growing," Johnson said. "The balls are growing."

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