By Will Graves
NEWARK, Ky. (AP) Kentucky spent 13 straight springs watching other schools play in the Final Four, a destination college basketball’s winningest program considers its birthright.
At most places, that’s hardly a drought.
In the Bluegrass, it’s a lifetime.
Now coach John Calipari and the Wildcats – finally – are two wins away from another national title.
Brandon Knight scored 22 points and fourth-seeded Kentucky advanced to the Final Four for the first time since their 1998 national title with a 76-69 win over second-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in the East Regional final.
The Wildcats (29-8) will play Connecticut in Houston on Saturday night after turning back a late surge by the Tar Heels (27-10), who erased an 11-point deficit before running out of gas in the final 2 minutes.
DeAndre Liggins added 12 points for Kentucky, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 37 seconds remaining to help lift the Wildcats.
“We got Kentucky back,” senior center Josh Harrellson said. “A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people really didn’t think we’d be the team we are. We really pulled it together as a team, and we’re back now.”
A season after falling a game short of the Final Four behind a roster filled with future NBA stars, the Wildcats are heading to the national semifinals for the 14th time behind the heady play of Knight and Harrellson’s emotional leadership.
Harrellson again held his own against North Carolina’s bigger, more heralded front line, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Tyler Zeller led North Carolina with 21 points and nine rebounds and Harrison Barnes added 18 points, but the Tar Heels fell behind early and struggled to keep the hot-shooting Wildcats in check.
Harrellson gave teammate Eloy Vargas a bear hug shortly after the buzzer sounded then gleefully cut down the nets while the Tar Heels trudged slowly off the floor.
It’s a scene the program has been waiting for years to celebrate, a mission that began in earnest when the program lured John Calipari away from Memphis in 2009.
He promised he wasn’t “the grand poobah” the day he signed his eight-year, $31.65 million contract, but there’s little doubt who rules the Bluegrass now.
Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only men’s coaches to lead three different programs to the Final Four. Calipari’s previous visits at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 were vacated by the NCAA for rules violations, but Calipari was not found liable in either instance.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Calipari wanted his Final Four appearances with the Wildcats “to stick.” Time will tell if they do, though he’s already restored the luster to a program that’s slowly slipped off its perch over the last decade.
The win also gives the Final Four another blueblood program, though with a twist.
Kentucky’s win means there will be no No. 1 or No. 2 seed since the field expanded to 64 in 1985.
Not that the Wildcats care about the seeding. Championship banners are what matter.
It’s why Kentucky went after Calipari so aggressively, making him the highest paid coach in the country.
He came close a year ago, as the Wildcats missed their first 20 3-point attempts in a dismal 73-66 loss to West Virginia.
There were no such issues Sunday. Knight hit a 3-pointer barely 3 minutes in and Kentucky kept right on shooting. Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb also drilled 3s of their own to give the Wildcats an early confidence boost.
When they weren’t knocking down jumpers from all over, they were getting their hands in passing lanes, pestering the bigger, longer Tar Heels into sloppy mistakes.
At one point Barnes found himself in an awkward position and tried to throw the ball off the backboard to himself. No dice. Harrellson, as he was almost all game, was right in position to gobble up the North Carolina mistake.
Kentucky roared into the halftime with a 38-30 lead then made it stand up as North Carolina failed to take advantage when the Wildcats grew skittish with the lead.
Kentucky wobbled, but it didn’t falter and instead rocketed to Houston on the heels of a 10-game winning streak.
The team that couldn’t win a close game or away from Rupp Arena is doing both easily now. Two days after taking out top-seeded Ohio State, the Wildcats again stayed calm when things got tight.
Knight drilled a 3-pointer after North Carolina tied it at 67 and Liggins later added the biggest shot of his roller-coaster career.
“Coach said if there’s a kick out you’d better shoot it, and I just shot it and made it,” Liggins said. “My job was to run the floor and try to make plays, so that’s what I tried to do.”
Now the Wildcats are running all the way back home – the Final Four.
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