CLEVELAND – John Calipari, ever the psychologist, made a point after Thursday night’s blowout of West Virginia to say that his 6-foot-11 freshman, Karl-Anthony Towns, had been the only player who was not “engaged” with his teammates that night.
Calipari said he expected Towns would be more involved in Kentucky’s next game against Notre Dame. Perhaps he was sending a message.
Whatever the case, Towns got his coach’s message loud and clear.
Towns was magnificent in Saturday night’s Midwest Region final, the best player on the floor. He scored a career-high 25 points and made all eight of his field-goal attempts in the second half as the Wildcats beat a game Fighting Irish team, 68-66.
So Kentucky, still perfect at 38-0, moves on to next week’s Final Four in Indianapolis, where the Wildcats will face Wisconsin in the national semifinal and resume their quest to become college basketball’s first unbeaten champion since Indiana in 1976.
They would be heading back to Lexington at 37-1 if not for Towns, a Piscataway, N.J., native who lived up to his reputation as one of the top players in the country, and quite possibly the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft if he chooses to leave school early.
Towns certainly looked like the No. 1 pick Saturday night. On a night when the Fighting Irish played stout half-court defense and attacked the vaunted Kentucky defense at the rim, it was Towns’ unstoppable performance in the low post that made the difference.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey had said he was excited to see how a top offensive team would make out against the best defensive team in years. He wanted his team to stand up to the much taller Wildcats and give the nation a game to remember, a riveting basketball show.
“They’re a better defensive team than you give them credit for,” Calipari said, “a tougher team. Their guards bothered us, especially in the first half. They got up in us.”
The Fighting Irish certainly did that. They were confident, mature and impeccably coached. They proved they weren’t one of those typically soft Irish teams that relied on offensive finesse, but an undersized, resilient squad that could battle in the post.
“I’m proud of our group,” Brey said. “We emptied our tank tonight.”
But often, a game comes down to which team has the better player. And while Kentucky has the most intimidating roster in the sport, there was no question in the regional final that the Wildcats had the best player.
Towns didn’t always live up to that designation. Calipari was tough on Towns at times, trying to draw the best out of a forward with great footwork, a soft shooting touch and terrific hands. He scolded him at one practice and said being a nice guy didn’t help the team win.
“I want him to be the best big man in the country by the end of the season,” Calipari said. “I’m not settling for anything less because I know he can do it.”
Well, there are more games to play, and Towns will have a chance to test himself against Wisconsin’s star big man, Frank Kaminsky, in the national semifinals next week. But he sure looked the part against Notre Dame.
At times, Towns made it seem ridiculously easy, posting up, spinning to the middle of the lane and dropping the ball into the basket from two feet away. On an erratic offensive team, he was the guy Notre Dame couldn’t stop, a big man having his way in the post.
“I just did a better job of getting position in the second half,” said Towns, who wears a size 20 shoe. “I just trusted what the coaching staff told me at halftime and the results speak for themselves.”
Towns scored three hoops early in the second half, lifting the Wildcats to a quick five-point lead. It seemed Kentucky was going to assert itself and wear Notre Dame down. But the Irish were not going away. Zach Auguste, their 6-10 junior, scored 20 points and shot 10-for-13, same as Towns, showing no fear of the Wilcats’ shot-blockers.
With 10 minutes left, Towns picked up his third four. But Calipari didn’t keep him out for long. He scored right away to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 52-51. The Irish went back up three and Towns spun to the lane and scored over Pat Connaughaton, who was giving up six inches.
Towns did more than score. He had five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block. After Kentucky fell behind by six, 59-53, he played give-and-go with Tyler Ulis, who made a big three out of the right corner.
He made a conventional three-point play to cut the deficit to 62-61. Towns scored yet again from in front of the rim to tie the game at 66-all with a minute to play, setting up the dramatic finish.
The Irish struggled to get a good shot on the ensuing possession and the ball went out of bounds near the right corner.
The original call was a jump ball, but the officials had to check the monitor to make sure. There were 34.1 seconds left on the clock. The red digit on the shot clock above the Notre Dame basket read “0.”
If the shot clock had indeed wound down to zero, that meant it was a shot clock violation and Kentucky ball, not a jump ball. The review showed that there was, in fact, one second on the clock and Notre Dame’s ball.
So the Fighting Irish had one second to shoot against the best defense to come along in college basketball in decades. Connaughton inbounded at the right sideline, with Cauley-Stein in his face. The Wildcats deflected his pass and the shot clock buzzer sounded.
So now Kentucky had a chance to win this gripping contest and move on the Final Four, two games from perfection. You had to figure the ball was going back to Towns in the low post. The ’Cats moved the ball to Towns behind the three-point line.
But Towns handed it back to Andrew Harrison, who was fouled by Jackson on a drive down the right of the lane. A good call, as the replay indicated. Harrison, who had made a huge three-pointer earlier, nailed both free throws to give Kentucky a two-point lead.
Notre Dame got the ball inbounds and Grant, their best player, raced frantically up the right sideline and heaved a contested shot from the left corner that went sailing over the rim as time expired.
“We were just trying to stay in the game,” said Calipari, who seemed relieved to have survived and advanced to the Final Four for the fourth time in five seasons.
Sometimes, a champion needs a worthy, determined foe to bring out its best. Notre Dame gave Kentucky everything it had and came up just short. As Brey said, they emptied the tank and brought out Kentucky’s best.
His name is Towns.