All season, Kentucky has turned away challengers, embodying the wisdom of Omar Little: "Come at the king, you best not miss." Notre Dame tried as hard as it could to finish off the unbeaten Wildcats in Saturday's Elite Eight thriller — but when the time came for the final shots, the Irish fired blanks.
Kentucky locked down Notre Dame over its final possessions, and Andrew Harrison made two free throws with six seconds remaining to send the Wildcats to the Final Four, their crown merely dented.
Notre Dame held a six-point lead in the second half, the game's largest, and led by four with 4:28 remaining. But the Irish bogged down on offense, and did not score in the final 2:36 of play. Karl-Anthony Towns was able to tie the game on a layup with 1:14 remaining, setting the stage for the Wildcats' 38th win of the season — which ties Kentucky's own NCAA record for wins by a men's team in a single season.
Their next win would give these 'Cats that record all to their own — and it will have to come against Wisconsin in a rematch of the 2014 Final Four.
Here are three things we learned from Kentucky's win:
1. Kentucky can be hung with — and even outpaced
While some teams have been able to keep games close with the vaunted Wildcats this year, no team was able to put the screws to Kentucky quite like Notre Dame did on this night. Irish center Zach Auguste had 20 points and nine rebounds, and he befuddled the towering Kentucky frontcourt with his quickness inside, while Steve Vasturia and Jerian Grant combined for 31 points, each hitting massive threes down the stretch.
This was a game that Kentucky did not control: In the final 15 minutes of play, the Wildcats led for less than a minute. And after their double-up destruction of West Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen, the reminder that Kentucky is mortal despite its greatness was a revelation.
2. Karl-Anthony Towns, however, is unstoppable
Towns had 25 points, 17 in the second half, on just 13 shots. And he was truly automatic late: the Dominican seven-footer's three misses were all in the first 13 minutes of play, and he was 8-for-8 from the floor after halftime.
Notre Dame's longest stretches of effectiveness on defense, not coincidentally, corresponded with the stretches when Towns sat while dealing with foul trouble. But he was able to play late, and gave Kentucky a consistent offensive option on a night when no other Wildcat scored more than 10 points.
3. It's a lot more fun to watch Kentucky get threatened
The Wildcats hadn't been challenged like they were in this game since at least their first week of SEC play, when both Mississippi and Texas A&M were able to take Big Blue to overtime. Sure, Florida, LSU, and Georgia had played strong games against UK, but no team had felt like it might pull the upset — Notre Dame really, truly did.
And while this Kentucky team is destined to either be the first 40-0 team in the annals of men's college basketball or one of the greatest teams to not win a national championship, the competitiveness and closeness of this game was far more compelling than the unmatchable greatness this team had displayed in the NCAA Tournament to date.
There may only be two more chances to see this Kentucky team play, but if they play two more games like this one, the 2015 NCAA Tournament is set for a flourish of a finish.