Indianapolis, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - With two thrilling wins on Friday, the eighth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats and second-seeded Michigan Wolverines kept their championship dreams alive, and will now square off in the Midwest Region final on Sunday evening.
The winner will move on to the Final Four, a place both squads are very familiar, to battle Wisconsin next Saturday.
Kentucky used a determined second-half comeback to down intrastate rival Louisville on Friday night. The Wildcats trailed until the final minutes of regulation, where they grabbed a slim lead and held on to advance.
It was the opposite story for Michigan, which played Tennessee in the Sweet 16 two days ago. The Wolverines held a large advantage throughout the contest, but the Volunteers kept chipping away until it was a one-possession game. Michigan didn't let Tennessee complete the comeback though, thus setting up this showdown with the Wildcats.
Kentucky leads the all-time series between these two programs, 4-2. The last time the squads met, Michigan pulled out an 81-78 overtime victory back in 1993.
John Calipari's Wildcats struggled to find their identity this season, especially down the stretch. But the young squad, made up of mostly freshman and sophomores, got hot at the perfect time, and has beaten teams like defensive powerhouse Kansas State, top-seeded and previously unbeaten Wichita State, and defending national champion Louisville in this tournament.
It was a gritty performance versus the Cardinals on Friday, and required some skillful free-throw shooting, particularly in the second half when they went 14-of-16 at the stripe. Freshman star Julius Randle provided yet another double-double in the win, notching 15 points to go with a team-best 12 rebounds. Dakari Johnson and Aaron Harrison each tallied 15 points in the win, and Andrew Harrison tacked on 14 for the Wildcats. Some Louisville foul trouble also helped Kentucky, as Montrezl Harrell and Stephan Van Treese both exited for the Cards after fouling out late.
On a team that has a roster full of potential, but very little experience, Randle has stood out as not only a top NBA prospect, but as the team's leader and go-to scorer. He averages a double-double heading into this game, netting 15.1 ppg while bringing down a team-high 10.7 rpg. His .708 free-throw percentage was a big help down the stretch against Louisville. James Young, who fouled out against the Cardinals, is second on the team in scoring with 14.1 ppg, although Aaron Harrison is also averaging 14.1 ppg. His twin brother Andrew Harrison checks in with 11.1 ppg, adding a team-best 144 assists to his stat line. As a team, UK is putting up 75.4 ppg while allowing 66.5 ppg.
At one point, Michigan held a 15-point lead in the second half before Tennessee mounted its comeback attempt. The Vols climbed to within one with six seconds left, but Michigan's Jordan Morgan drew a foul, which gave the Wolverines a chance to create a bit more separation. Thanks to four players who scored in double figures, the Wolverines were able to fend off the surging Vols, whose Cinderella-like run came to an end in the Sweet 16.
Morgan appropriately led the team in scoring with 15 points, adding a team- high seven rebounds in the process. Nik Stauskas had a below-average day shooting (5-of-12 from the field, 3-of-8 from 3-point range), but still chipped in 14 points in the win. Glenn Robinson III added 13 points for Michigan, and Caris LeVert contributed 10 with five assists. As a team, the Wolverines hit 55.1 percent of their total shots.
With his 14-point effort on Friday, Stauskas saw his team-leading scoring average take a slight dip. He still nets 17.3 ppg, also adding team-bests in 3-point shooting percentage (.448) and assists (115). Robinson III checks in at second on the roster in scoring with his 13.1 ppg, and LeVert adds 13 ppg. Imagine what the Wolverines would be capable of if they had a healthy Mitch McGary, although Morgan has been nothing less than stellar in this tournament playing the role of the team's big man. Morgan averages a team-high in rebounding (5 rpg), and nets a club-best 69.4 percent of his field goal attempts. As a team, the Wolverines are scoring 74 ppg while giving up 64.8 ppg.