NEW ORLEANS – Kentucky owns the Bluegrass State. Now it can concentrate on the rest of the country
Anthony Davis and top-seeded Kentucky will play for the national title Monday night after finally putting away pesky Louisville 69-61 in the men’s basketball Final Four on Saturday night.
It will be Kentucky’s first appearance in the title game since winning a seventh NCAA crown in 1998 and gives coach John Calipari another shot at the title that has eluded him. The Wildcats (37-2) will face Kansas, which defeated Ohio State 64-62.
As the final seconds ticked down, Davis pointed to the court and screamed twice: “This is my stage!”
Yes, yes it is.
With Davis, everybody’s player of the year, leading a star-studded roster, Kentucky was the top seed in the tournament and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets when the whole tournament was done. Calipari wouldn’t let his young players consider anything else, saying repeatedly this was “just another game.”
But playing in-state rival Louisville (30-10) is never just that, and the Cardinals made Kentucky work deep into the second half to grind this victory out.
Louisville outrebounded Kentucky 40-33, including a whopping 19-6 advantage on the offensive glass – the sole reason the Cardinals were able to make a game of this.
“I just said, John, ‘I’ll be pulling for you, bring the trophy back home to Kentucky,’ ” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “Sometimes there’s a lot of talk about these guys fighting, dialysis, there’s also really a lot of people that get along. For those that have brains, they root for each other.
“We like their basketball team; we hope they bring it home for the state.”
Bigger, bulkier and with the 19-year-old freshman Davis showing off his wide wingspan, the Wildcats looked like playground bullies as they pushed Louisville around on their way to a 13-point lead early in the second half. But the Cardinals know a thing about rallies after coming from 11 points down to beat Florida in last weekend’s West Regional final, and they sure made Kentucky sweat.
Russ Smith made back-to-back buckets to start a 15-3 run, and Peyton Siva capped it with a 3-pointer from NBA range that tied the game at 49 with 9:11 to play. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played just 23 minutes because of foul trouble, made back-to-back buckets to give the Wildcats breathing room.
After Siva made a pair of free throws, Terrence Jones scored on a jumper and Darius Miller drilled a 3 – only Kentucky’s second of the game – to give the Wildcats control for good.
“I’m proud of this team. They’re coming together,” Calipari said. “They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville did today, and they’ve held their own.”
Just to make sure Louisville didn’t get any wild notions about another late comeback, Kidd-Gilchrist threw down a monstrous dunk with 1:05 to play that had Kentucky fans on their feet.
Kentucky shot a dazzling 57 percent with Davis leading the way. He missed just one of his eight shots and finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Siva led the Cardinals with 11 points.
The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry caused tempers to flare even in December when, in the grand scheme of things, games really don’t mean much. Heck, it took government intervention just to get the schools to play on a regular basis back in the 1980s.
With the NCAA title game on the line, the latest skirmish in basketball’s version of the civil war so divided the small hoop-crazed state that senior citizens actually came to fisticuffs and made for must-see TV.
Kentucky is 19-11 since the teams resumed playing in 1983-84, with the Wildcats winning four straight, including a 69-62 victory at Rupp Arena on Dec. 31.