Cleveland, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - When the Kentucky Wildcats won the SEC championship on March 15, they went against tradition and left the nets at Bridgestone Arena intact.
They had bigger goals in mind, including a second straight trip to the Final Four. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Harrison made sure they got there.
Towns scored a game-high 25 points, Harrison sank two free throws with six seconds left and Kentucky stayed unbeaten with a come-from-behind 68-66 win over Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional final.
Notre Dame gave the 38-0 Wildcats as stiff a test as they've faced all season, leading for most of the second half before the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed scored the game's last four points.
Towns muscled his way to the basket for a layup with 1:14 remaining to tie the score at 66.
Empty possessions both ways led to Harrison working the clock down and attacking the rim, drawing a blocking foul on Demetrius Jackson. Both free throws were pure.
"Coach told me to go with nine (seconds left)," said Harrison. "I think I went a little before that, it was so wide open that I just tried to take it. I got fouled, and thank God I made two free throws."
Jerian Grant took the ensuing inbounds pass and raced up the left sideline against multiple Kentucky defenders. Willie Cauley-Stein forced him into the left corner, where Grant's pump fake got him and Harrison to bite and fly by. But Trey Lyles followed the play and challenged Grant, who missed long at the horn.
The Wildcats didn't miss a field goal after Cauley-Stein's failed tip-in at 12:05. They didn't miss anything after Harrison split a pair from the line at 8:43.
"My mind is never on 'we may lose," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "My mindset the whole time is 'how are we going to win?' And I want them to know, we don't play not to lose, we play to win."
Next up for Kentucky is the top seed out of the West Region. Wisconsin held off Arizona on Saturday, setting a rematch of last season's Final Four. Kentucky won that game, 74-73, before losing to UConn in the national championship game.
Neither team gave an inch at the end. Notre Dame held a slim lead when Aaron Harrison and Grant traded deep 3-pointers, with Grant's make at 2:35 giving the Irish a 66-64 lead. Grant missed all three of Notre Dame's field goal attempts after that, and the Irish committed a shot-clock violation following a lengthy video review awarded them the ball with less than a second left on 35-second clock.
Zach Auguste led Notre Dame (32-6) with 20 points, admirably neutralizing Kentucky's vast size advantage in the middle. Steve Vasturia added 16 points and Grant finished with 15 and six assists.
"We're extremely disappointed," said Irish coach Mike Brey. "We thought we had a great chance of beating them, and I thought we displayed that. Give them credit, they made some big plays."
"I'm proud of our group. We emptied the tank tonight, and that's all I asked them to do before the game."
Both teams came out for the second half swinging, and the Irish landed more blows, scoring on seven of their first eight possessions out of the locker room.
That stretch, just a 15-11 run thanks to 5-for-6 shooting at the other end by Towns and Devin Booker, included a pair of thunderous Auguste dunks, five points from Vasturia and a two-handed slam from Pat Connaughton.
The Wildcats got back within one on two straight possessions following Towns jump hooks. The Irish answered both times with a Vasturia layup and Auguste putback. Vasturia hit a corner 3 at 6:14, giving Notre Dame its largest lead of the game at 59-53.
Neither team led by more than four during a remarkably tight first half.
Kentucky opened the game with Towns finding Lyles for an alley-oop, but then went more than three minutes without scoring. Another three-plus minute drought late in the half, coupled with Grant's personal 5-0 run, led to a 24-21 Notre Dame lead at the final media timeout.
Lyles tipped in an Andrew Harrison missed jumper at the buzzer to send the two teams into halftime tied at 31.
Kentucky is heading to the Final Four for the fourth time in five seasons ... Kentucky has only trailed in the final five minutes of a game five times this season ... Both teams scored 40 points in the paint ... Notre Dame fell to 8-2 against teams that made the Sweet 16 this season ... Booker scored 10 points for the Wildcats ... Connaughton and Auguste each grabbed nine rebounds for ND ... There were 12 ties and 20 lead changes.