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'Cats claw back to the top

There were several good reasons a few weeks ago that a Kentucky trip to the Final Four would not happen. They seemed too depleted. Too inexperienced. Too new to the bright lights. Too unprecedented.

But now here they come, for the first time in 12 years, which must seem like a generation to Bluegrass State fans. A Kentucky team that had to climb several mountains to get to the Final Four.

"Where are we going next?" Terrence Jones asked to no one in particular after Kentucky's thrilling 76-69 win over No. 2 seed North Carolina in the East regional final.

"We're going to Houston," Darius Miller said. "I think."

Too young, apparently, to know any better.

Kentucky is, by the numbers and most certainly talent, not exactly a shocking participant in the Final Four. The Wildcats are a No. 4 seed with future NBA prospects dotting the roster. But there was also a whiff of uncertainty about Kentucky, whose players have spent the month answering suspicions and, of course, winning games.

John Calipari painstakingly put together a new cast of young 'Cats, a trial-and-error procedure that most would have bagged a long time ago.

"When I saw the board, the seedings, yeah, I am a little bit surprised we're here," Calipari said. "But not because of how my team was playing, I just thought the path to get here would be so ridiculous that we would have to play out of our minds or people would have to get knocked off."

Kentucky, a team so young it could travel to Houston on training wheels, hasn't seen a Final Four since 1998, when Tubby Smith was the coach. These 'Cats were never taken seriously since they lost five players from last year to the NBA. Who advances to the Final Four a year removed from losing two lottery picks, a team that was forced to the wall against Princeton in the second round? They came to the Prudential Center as underdogs -- imagine that, mighty Kentucky an underdog -- yet tucked away No. 1 seed Ohio State and now, North Carolina.

The Ohio State win was especially shocking. The Buckeyes didn't require much of our time. After halftime of Ohio State's wins last week against Texas-San Antonio and George Mason we could have run errands or fallen asleep. There may have been some tumbleweed roaming the Quicken Loans Arena as the Buckeyes looked for evidence of a creditable opponent. They found one in New Jersey last Friday.

"All we needed," said Kentucky's Josh Harrellson, "is a day's rest."

Last year's team was more talented, no question. John Wall and Eric Bledsoe fired when ready and if they didn't connect, DeMarcus Cousins would clean up the mess. But Calipari, the man who was handed a $31.65 million deal to make Kentucky a high-brow program, once again is on to something special.

These are the days when a player like Harrellson can play 88 minutes one season then grab eight rebounds and push around Tyler Zeller in the post the next. When an afterthought like DeAndre Liggins settles into his role, then hits the biggest shot of his life with 35.6 seconds left that turned a one-point Kentucky lead to four.

"Come here! Come here!" Calipari yelled at Liggins shortly after the shot. The coach grabbed him tightly with both hands and smiled.

"That was celebration time," Liggins said.

Everything worked. Everything was magic. Calipari plugs it in; it lights up.

"I think DeAndre hit the biggest shot of the game when we were up by one to put us up by four," said Brandon Knight, the regional's most outstanding player. "It just shows how not only me, but the rest of our team can really make big-time shots."

North Carolina was a worthy opponent, a heavyweight that likes to flaunt its size in the paint, but the Wildcats were obsessed with controlling the lane like they did against Ohio State. Carolina's John Henson has the height but has the body fat of a feather and was in foul trouble quickly. Zeller had 21 points but only twice did Harrellson allow him easy position for dunks. Everything else was challenging. Harrison Barnes enjoyed a delicious stretch where he scored eight in a row until Kentucky had enough of his shenanigans.

After Liggins' three, Barnes forced a three-pointer with Zeller in the post waving his hand as if he were trying to catch a taxi. Forget about it. Barnes was scoreless in the final 4:19. Kentucky is a Wall Street businessman. Ruthless. Steady. Unforgiving.

And, if all goes well, national champions.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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