NEWARK, N.J. — With a hard-earned 76-69 victory over North Carolina finally assured inside the final minute Sunday, Kentucky sealed an improbable run to the Final Four with a kiss.
DeAndre Liggins walked to the bench for a timeout and stepped into coach John Calipari's embrace.
"That was celebration time," Liggins called it.
"I kissed him on the forehead," Calipari said of the gesture that spoke volumes about the rush of emotion caused by this Kentucky team's achievement and the affection the coach feels toward his gutsiest player. "I was thinking, he's really sweaty."
This victory — and Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run through Princeton, West Virginia, overall No. 1 seed Ohio State and lastly North Carolina — required buckets of sweat.
"We went from Louis to Robinson to Ali," Calipari said, meaning Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
To advance to its first Final Four since 1998 (when the Wildcats rallied past Duke in the region final at Tropicana Field) and set up a meeting with Connecticut, Kentucky had to knock out Ohio State and North Carolina within 72 hours.
Despite the drain of outlasting the Buckeyes on Friday and the well-chronicled six-man rotation, Kentucky took the initiative from the Tar Heels.
"They were really so much more aggressive in the first half," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Their offense beat our defense. Their defense beat our offense. They were the hungrier team."
Freshman Brandon Knight led the charge with 22 points. His five 3-pointers surpassed the four he'd made in the Wildcats' three earlier NCAA games. Each seemed to come at a critical time, none more so than the last.
With North Carolina completing a game-long uphill climb to tie it at 67 with 3:18 left, Knight swished a 3-pointer from in front of his team's bench.
"That shot Brandon had, I still picture it in my mind," said Tyler Zeller, who led UNC with 21 points. "That was a momentum buster."
After Zeller's tip-in made it a one-point game with 1:56 left, Liggins twice made big plays.
North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, so influential that Calipari started Liggins with the expressed order to keep him in check, drove for the go-ahead shot. Liggins came out of nowhere — at least Williams couldn't remember who did it — to block Marshall's shot.
"Kendall Marshall drove by me," Liggins said. "My length gave me the ability to block the shot."
Liggins all but clinched the victory by taking a penetrate-and-pitch pass from Darius Miller and hitting a 3 from the right corner with 35.6 seconds left. That finished a stat-stuffing night for Liggins that included 12 points, four assists and three steals.
Kentucky dictated a slower pace from the start. The Tar Heels' noted fast-attacking transition game netted only two first-half points and finished with 12.
Trailing 38-30, the Tar Heels came out in the second half with a more aggressive defense. After turnovers on the first two possessions, Calipari called timeout with 19:07 left and the lead down to 38-32.
North Carolina tied it at 67 on two Zeller free throws with 3:18 left. That marked the first time since 13:34 was left in the first half that Kentucky did not lead.
About three game minutes later, Calipari was kissing Liggins.
"He didn't kiss me back," the coach advised reporters.
Presumably, all bets are off if Kentucky wins two more games next weekend at the Final Four.