NCAA tournament final: Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison has the ‘clutch gene’

Up until Aaron Harrison sank the shot that propelled Kentucky into Monday’s NCAA championship game — a contested jumper from well behind the three-point line — the 6-foot-6 freshman had made just two baskets.

Only 5.7 seconds remained. Kentucky trailed Wisconsin by two, and the Wildcats’ highly touted shooting guard had been held to five points. So what was it about Harrison that gave his twin brother, point guard Andrew, the confidence to pass him the ball with their NCAA title hopes at stake?

“He just asked me for it,” Andrew Harrison said Sunday, less than 24 hours after Kentucky’s 74-73 win over Wisconsin. “I wasn’t going to say no.”

There are numerous ways to distinguish one basketball player’s skills from another’s — height, heft, quickness and game smarts among them. But some, like Aaron Harrison, appear blessed with a passion, if not an all-consuming compulsion, for taking the shots with the absolute highest stakes.

Michael Jordan had it, to be sure, and in the last three rounds of the NCAA tournament, 19-year-old Aaron Harrison served notice he has it, too — that mysterious facet of his competitive DNA that Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker characterized as “that clutch gene.”

The men's NCAA tournament is down to the Final Four. From a freshmen-starting-five to a first-time Final Four coach, here's a rundown of the madness so far. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

“The biggest thing is he’s not afraid to miss,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said Sunday when asked about Aaron Harrison’s game-winners against Louisville, Michigan and now Wisconsin. “If you’re going to make those kind of shots, you absolutely cannot be afraid to miss them.”

Harrison, for his part, conceded that hitting the baskets that lifted the Wildcats to victory has been the world’s best feeling.

“Of course everyone knows when you’re a kid that you always dream about hitting the game-winning shot,” Harrison said, “so it’s just unreal to actually be able to do that in a big-time game.”

Without his heroics, eighth-seeded Kentucky (29-10) wouldn’t have earned its spot in Monday’s title game against seventh-seeded Connecticut (31-8) — and certainly not in such improbable style, becoming the first team to topple both of the previous year’s finalists (Louisville and Michigan) en route to the title game.

But in the glorious aftermath of Saturday night’s game, Harrison was a portrait of humility, responding with a giggle and a blush when asked whether he thought he had ascended to folk-hero status in the state of Kentucky for his clutch performances.

“No,” he said after composing himself. “Not at all!”

Asked a bit later about how he dealt with the attention from adoring Wildcats fans, he said: “I’m on a team full of great basketball players, and all of us get a lot of attention. I think that it’s just a maturity thing, really.”

No doubt, Harrison doesn’t stand alone in terms of basketball accolades. Kentucky’s entire starting lineup is composed of McDonald’s all-Americans. Another two come off the bench.

Yet Calipari appears to have convinced his young players, who began the season as the No. 1 team in the country, that they are underdogs and that he has been saddled with the Herculean task of getting teenagers to play a team game.

Connecticut’s second-year coach, Kevin Ollie, could stake a similar claim on underdog status.

Neither team even qualified for the NCAA tournament last season, making this the first title-game matchup of such teams since 1966. Connecticut was barred from postseason play because its players fell short of minimum NCAA academic standards. Kentucky had lost the core of its 2012 NCAA championship squad to the NBA and was relegated to the National Invitation Tournament.

The key to Connecticut’s renaissance was point guard Shabazz Napier’s decision to return as a junior rather than transfer, despite the postseason ban and the fact that Hall of Fame Coach Jim Calhoun had retired. As a senior, Napier has been invaluable. Along with back-court mate Ryan Boatright, he was brilliant in stifling Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin in Connecticut’s 63-53 upset of the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed to advance to the title game.

Much like Kentucky, the Huskies clawed out of a midseason slump to play their best basketball in recent weeks.

Kentucky has gotten better, as well, despite its penchant for nail-biting finishes. Against Wisconsin, the Wildcats did all the unglamorous things it typically takes college players several seasons to master. They turned over the ball over just four times and not at all over the final 24 minutes 29 seconds of the game. They battled for rebounds and converted their second-chance points. And they refused to hang their heads when trailing.

“We broke down a few times, but the reality of it is they do have a competitive spirit,” Calipari said of his team. “When they get down, they grow hair on their necks and they come after you, and they don’t ever stop playing.”

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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