NCAA enters final weekend, wild ride nears an end

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The Appalachian Online

Nick Joyner

Four teams remain in the 2015 NCAA tournament, after yet another fantastic, thrilling weekend of college basketball.

Notre Dame and Kentucky took care of business on Thursday against lower seeded teams that led to a terrific Elite 8 matchup on Saturday.

Kentucky, the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship, came out strong against the Fighting Irish but could never pull away from the ACC tournament champion.

As the second half progressed, Notre Dame took control of the match and looked poise to give the undefeated Wildcats their first loss of the season. Up six with 5:22 left in the game, the Irish struggled getting stops to close out the game and Kentucky finally woke up.

Kentucky rallied to win 68-66 behind 17 second-half points from Karl-Anthony Towns.

In the West region, top seed Wisconsin survived an early push from the fourth-seeded UNC Tar Heels in the Sweet 16 to win 79-72.

No. 2 seed Arizona prevented an upset from No. 6 seed Xavier that set up a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight game between Arizona and Wisconsin.

Just like 2014, Wisconsin was too much for Arizona. Badgers senior Frank Kaminsky poured in 29 points to lead the team, advancing 85-78 over the Wildcats.

Wisconsin will take on Kentucky in the Final Four Saturday, a rematch of last year’s Final Four game between the two 1-seed teams.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 7 seed Michigan State continued its improbable run by knocking off Oklahoma on Thursday, then following that up with a 76-70 overtime win over No. 4 seed Louisville.

The Spartans, who have struggled with consistency all year, looked like a Final Four team last weekend. For a group that many national pundits believed would only be a shell of the Elite Eight team they were a year ago, they are continuing to excel.

Last season’s NCAA tournament was capped off by No. 7 seed Connecticut winning the national championship.

Fast forward one year, and what do you know? Another No. 7 seed has advanced to the Final Four and has a chance to follow in the Huskies’ footsteps.

The South region saw No. 1 seed Duke defeat No. 5 seed Utah, and No. 2 seed Gonzaga dominate No. 11 seed UCLA, 74-62.

When the Blue Devils met the Bulldogs on Sunday, Duke showed why they are consistetly among the nation’s best college basketball programs.

Duke center Jahlil Okafor had a game to forget with just nine points and even airballed a free throw.

The Blue Devils looked sleepy for much of the first half, and as the second half began it was easy to see Duke giving up.

Yeah, the score was close, but Gonzaga seemed to want it more. Each basket from the Bulldogs would ignite the Gonzaga bench. Then, Duke freshman Justise Winslow took over.

Winslow recorded 16 points and five rebounds, but more importantly provided an emotional spark down the stretch with key defensive stands.

Senior guard Quinn Cook often screamed with intensity as the game began winding down and ultimately, Duke won 66-52.

The Blue Devils will take on Michigan State Saturday for a spot in the National Championship.

The winner of Kentucky and Wisconsin will meet either Duke or Michigan State in the final game of the season.

If Kentucky were to defeat both Wisconsin and either Duke or Michigan State, the Wildcats would finish the season perfect at 40-0.

No matter what happens, college basketball fans are certainly in store for quite a ride.

Column: Nick Joyner, Senior Sports Reporter