Saturday, April 2, 2011

Final (Four) Destination

Sometimes the most memorable seasons are also the most unexpected ones.

Despite a #11 preseason ranking by the Associated Press, the 2010-11 Kentucky Wildcats' basketball team faced a rebuilding year by their standards.

The Wildcats are still in the hunt for the national championship

The 'Cats lost nearly 87% of the scoring from a team that went 35-3 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight the previous year. They lost 4 key contributors to the NBA, and 3 others to graduation. To win this season, Kentucky would have to rely heavily on its strong recruiting class, and throw its freshmen right into the fire. It was a sink-or-swim scenario.

The Wildcats get loose prior to the game

Kentucky's youngsters proved that they were up to the challenge, going 22-8 during the regular season while dominating opponents within the friendly confines of Rupp Arena. Still, the Wildcats showed some vulnerability...recording a 10-6 Southeastern Conference record, and a disappointing 4-7 road record.

Kentucky overcame some road struggles this season to land in the Elite Eight

The 'Cats picked the right time of year to get hot, however...winning the SEC Tournament in convincing fashion at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The proof that they could win games away from Lexington helped them earn a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament's East Region.

Conquering March Madness would not be an easy task for the Wildcats in that particular it included #1 overall seed Ohio State, along with perennial college basketball stalwarts North Carolina and Syracuse. Kentucky even faced some tough tests during their early-round games in Tampa, defeating Princeton in the final seconds, and then topping West Virginia to advance to the East Regional in Newark, New Jersey.

Inching closer to the Final Four

As you read in this blog's previous entry, Kentucky pulled off a dramatic upset over Ohio State in the Sweet 16. That sent the Wildcats to their 2nd consecutive Elite Eight...and a surprise trip to the Final Four loomed if they could top the North Carolina Tar Heels.


It was a chilly, but gorgeous Sunday afternoon outside Newark's Prudential Center. There was a steady build of excitement throughout the day, as two of college basketball's elite programs were getting set to square off -- with a Final Four spot at stake.

A Carolina blue sky above the Prudential Center gave way to a Kentucky blue night

Little-by-little, the FanFest area next to the arena became crowded with fans wearing Carolina light blue and Kentucky royal blue. Wildcats' and Tar Heels' supporters were joyous to be in this situation...having overcome tremendous odds to make it this deep into the NCAA Tournament.

The FanFest is filled with Kentucky and North Carolina supporters

After posting a 24-6 regular-season record in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, North Carolina was selected as the East Region's #2 seed. The Tar Heels -- like Kentucky -- was relying on younger players to be successful. All five starters were underclassmen, led by freshman guard Harrison Barnes and junior center Tyler Zeller.

Only the Tar Heels stood in the way of Kentucky's 14th Final Four appearance

Many thought North Carolina was overrated for March Madness...but tournament wins over Long Island, Washington and Marquette placed them one victory away from a trip to Houston.

Inside the Prudential Center, the Tar Heels enjoyed a home-court edge in terms of fan support. The majority of those in the sold-out crowd of 18,278 was decked out in Carolina blue...but as the game got underway, it was Kentucky fans who supplied most of the cheers.

UNC had the majority of fan support for this game

If the Wildcats were due for a letdown following their shocking win over Ohio State on Friday night, they certainly didn't show it.

Kentucky's high-low screen offense baffled the Tar Heels throughout the game

Playing tenacious defense and running precision offensive sets, Kentucky established a lead that would last throughout the 1st half. The Wildcats outplayed and outhustled the Tar Heels, giving them a 38-30 lead heading into halftime.

The Wildcats' tough defense helped establish an 8-point halftime lead

Despite the deficit, many North Carolina fans remained confident. Kentucky essentially dominated the opening 20 minutes of play...yet only held an 8-point advantage. The Tar Heels had become known for their 2nd half runs this another hot streak was possible.

UNC head coach Roy Williams wasn't pleased with his team's 1st half play

For most of the 2nd half, Kentucky kept North Carolina at arm's length. Anytime the Tar Heels would score a couple of consecutive hoops to tighten the score, the Wildcats would answer with a big basket. Those clad in royal blue were beginning to see realistic visions of a Final Four appearance.

Kentucky fans were hoping to make travel plans to Houston

With 5 minutes remaining, however, North Carolina made its move. What was a 8-point Wildcats' lead was reduced to 5 points...then 3 points...then 1 point!

A reverse-layup by Harrison Barnes helped spark a Carolina comeback

With 3:18 remaining, a made free-throw by Tyler Zeller tied the game at 67. North Carolina had scaled the mountain...but this was Kentucky's night.

UNC fought back to tie the game, but couldn't get over the hump

The Wildcats finished the game on a 9-2 run, including a clutch 3-pointer by DeAndre Liggins with less-than a minute left. As the final seconds ticked away, the Kentucky players and their fans celebrated. The 'Cats were headed to the NCAA Final Four, with a 76-69 victory.

DeAndre Liggins' 3-pointer helped seal a Kentucky trip to the Final Four

Following the game, the Wildcats were awarded with their East Regional Champions t-shirts, caps, and trophy. While many North Carolina fans headed for the Prudential Center exits, nearly all Kentucky fans remained at their seats...absorbing the reality of their team's first Final Four appearance since 1998.

Your NCAA East Regional champions

While the focus was on the Kentucky players at the mid-court stage, a ladder -- fittingly, royal blue in color -- was placed beneath one of the baskets. It was there that the Wildcats would commemorate their regional title by cutting down the net -- continuing a long-standing college basketball tradition.

The net comes down in Newark

After the net-cutting ceremony, Kentucky supporters added some championship gear of their own in the arena concourse. Concession stands were mobbed with fans who wanted to purchase the same t-shirts and caps that were worn by the Wildcats' players.

The concession stands were busy following Big Blue's big win

From the very first "Midnight Madness" practice at Rupp Arena in October 2010, an 8th NCAA basketball championship was a dream for the Kentucky Wildcats and their fans. Now, almost 6 months later...that dream is two wins away from coming true.

Next stop -- Houston

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