Indianapolis, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - Aaron Harrison and the Kentucky Wildcats proved once again they've finally come of age, advancing to the Final Four with a thrilling 75-72 victory over Michigan on the freshman guard's tie- breaking 3-pointer with 2.6 seconds remaining.
Harrison's incredibly clutch basket gave the rookie-dominated Wildcats a surprise Midwest Region title as an eighth seed, in which they knocked off a trio of 2013 Final Four participants to get there. Kentucky (28-10) earned a trip to the Elite Eight with wins over previously unbeaten Wichita State and defending national champ Louisville, then punched its ticket to the national semis by outlasting the 2013 runner-up Wolverines in a down- to-the-wire nail-biter.
Harrison scored nine of his 12 points in the final 4 1/2 minutes, with three other members of Kentucky's heralded freshman class also coming up with key contributions. Julius Randle racked up 16 points and 11 rebounds, James Young had 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting and Marcus Lee came through with 10 points and eight rebounds in an extended role.
"We showed a lot of toughness," said Harrison. "We're just a group of tough young guys, doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore."
Lee, who came in averaging just 2.0 points and 1.2 rebounds per game, helped offset the absence of starting center Willie Cauley-Stein, sidelined by a sprained ankle sustained in Friday's win over Louisville in the Sweet 16. Even with the 7-foot defensive specialist out of action, the Wildcats outrebounded the Wolverines by a 35-24 margin and produced 46 points in the paint.
Michigan's Nik Stauskas topped all scorers with 24 points, but his desperation 3-point try from halfcourt at the buzzer landed well off the mark, leaving the Wolverines (28-9) just short in their bid for a second straight Final Four berth.
"They made a great shot coming down. I thought we did a pretty good job contesting it. It's part of basketball," said Stauskas. "It's going to happen to you where you're going to make the shot sometimes, and it's going to go against you sometimes where the other team makes a shot. So you gotta tip your hat to Kentucky, they played a great game and that was a big play down the stretch."
Kentucky will be headed to the Final Four for the third time in four years, with a matchup against West Region champion Wisconsin awaiting the Wildcats in North Texas' AT&T Stadium.
They had to fend off a furious late charge by the more experienced Wolverines to land the final spot, however. Down by five with two minutes to go, Michigan drew even on a Glenn Robinson III 3-pointer that was followed by Jordan Morgan's tip-in with 31.5 seconds left, with the Wolverines saving the possession three times with offensive rebounds prior to the make.
Kentucky then drained the clock following a timeout before Harrison came up aces on a step-back three with Michigan's Caris LeVert right in his face.
"He was up on me. He touched my hand a little bit, actually," said Harrison. "And the shot just fell."
Stauskas' near 50-foot heave as time expired never had a chance, enabling the Wildcats to become only the sixth No. 8 seed to make it to a Final Four.
They'll also be the first team to field an all-freshman starting lineup at the Final Four since Michigan's famed "Fab Five" in 1992.
It's a process. Every year it's a process," said Wildcats head coach John Calipari. "Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer, and it took me a little longer to figure them out.
"It's hard, when all seven of them scored 28 a game in high school, to give up something and then you're looking at the other guy. When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier. They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have. But it took us four months."
Kentucky trailed 55-51 earlier in the second half before turning the tide with an 11-0 run that was aided by three consecutive Wolverine turnovers. The first led to Harrison's triple that broke a 55-55 stalemate with just over eight minutes remaining, with Randle and Andrew Harrison converting the other two giveaways for a seven-point Wildcats' cushion.
Robinson countered with a key corner trey, however, and Morgan completed a conventional 3-point play with 4:47 left to trim Michigan's deficit to 62-61.
The Wolverines never managed to regain the lead, though, with Kentucky countering every Michigan basket during the exciting stretch run -- which featured a trio of Aaron Harrison 3-pointers.
An equally competitive first half saw Michigan build a sizeable lead on two different occasions, only to have the Wildcats battle back to narrow the gap each time.
The Wolverines opened the game on a 9-2 run and Stauskas' 3-pointer just over six minutes in enabled Michigan to jump out to a 14-6 advantage, but the young Wildcats eventually shook off the early jitters to score the next six points -- four coming on a pair of Lee dunks around a minute apart.
Michigan regained some separation behind a 12-3 sequence in which Stauskas accounted for six points, with the last two coming on a driving layup off a Kentucky turnover to put the Wolverines up 32-22 with five minutes to go in the half.
The Wildcats again had an answer, though, with Young netting five points during an 8-0 push that cut the deficit down to two. The game was all square at the break after Randle beat the buzzer with a short runner that forged a 37-37 tie.
Kentucky surged ahead early in the second half via a 6-0 stretch -- doing all of its damage inside -- that snapped a 39-39 deadlock, but Derrick Walton and LeVert each canned threes during an 8-2 Wolverines' run that evened the score once more.
The Wildcats went 7-of-11 from 3-point range .... Robinson finished with 14 points, with Morgan adding 11 on 5-of-6 shooting ... Kentucky is in the Final Four for the 16th time in the storied history of the program, passing Duke for sole possession of third place all-time behind North Carolina (18) and UCLA (17) ... UCLA (1980), Villanova (1985), North Carolina (2000), Wisconsin (2000) and Butler (2011) are the only other eighth seeds to reach the Final Four ... Randle's double-double was his 24th of the season, breaking a tie with UCLA's Kevin Love (2008) for the second most by a freshman in NCAA history ... The SEC has gone 10-1 in this year's NCAA Tournament, with two of the league's three members that received bids making the Final Four.