NEWARK, N.J. - Kentucky spent 13 consecutive 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 State, it’s a lifetime.
Now coach John Calipari has the Wildcats two wins away from a 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.
“We got Kentucky back,” senior center Josh Harrellson said. “ We really pulled it together as a team, and we’re back now.”
The Wildcats (29-8) will play Connecticut in Houston on Saturday after turning back a late surge by the Tar Heels (27-10), who erased an 11-point deficit before running out of gas late.
DeAndre Liggins added 12 points for Kentucky, including a 3-pointer from the corner with 37 seconds remaining to lift the Wildcats.
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 semifinals for the 14th time behind Knight’s heady play and Calipari’s energy.
Calipari revitalized the flagging program a year ago behind superstar John Wall. In his second season, he delivered on his promise to return Kentucky to glory.
The Wildcats edged Ohio State on Friday, then gave the Final Four another blueblood program, though with a twist. There will be no No. 1 or No. 2 seeds playing the last weekend of the season.
The Wildcats have a pedigree and a roster full of highly touted freshmen. Yet they’re just as reliant on holdovers such as Liggins and Harrellson.
A seldom used reserve a year ago who has flourished in his final season, Harrellson held his own against North Carolina’s more heralded front line, scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds as Kentucky avenged a 75-73 loss to the Tar Heels in December in Chapel Hill.
It was a different story in New Jersey. And in March.
“I’m going to focus on what a wonderful group of kids and what a wonderful year it was,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “But it still doesn’t take away the hurt that you feel today.”
Tyler Zeller led the Tar Heels with 21 points and nine rebounds and Harrison Barnes added 18 points, but North Carolina fell behind early and struggled with the hot-shooting Wildcats.