NEW ORLEANS — Bragging rights in the Bluegrass State are mighty nice.
Kentucky has its sights set higher.
Anthony Davis and top-seeded Kentucky are right where they planned to be all along, playing for the national title after finally putting away pesky Louisville 69-61 in the Final Four on Saturday night.
“I have a team that’s had teams come at them all year,” coach John Calipari said, “and they responded again today.”
It will be Kentucky’s first appearance in the title game since winning a seventh NCAA crown back in 1998 and gives Calipari another shot at the title that has eluded him. The Wildcats (37-2) will face the winner of Kansas-Ohio State on Monday night.
As the final seconds ticked down, Davis pointed to the court and screamed twice “This is my stage!”
Yes, yes, it is.
With a star-studded roster that includes at least three, maybe as many as five NBA lottery picks, Kentucky was the top seed in the tournament and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets when the whole tournament was done. And 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.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the Kentucky teams. I’m not going to lie to you,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who counts as something of an expert after spending eight years in Lexington and the last 11 with the Cardinals. “But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play.
“I’ll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy back to Kentucky. … They’re a great group of guys, doing a tremendous job.”
So tremendous it led to a thawing, however briefly, in the frosty relationship between Calipari and Pitino. When the two shook hands after the game, Pitino congratulated Calipari and told him he’d be rooting for the Wildcats on Monday night.
“I think that’s neat,” Calipari said. “When I was at UMass, I can remember hugging him and telling him, ‘I’m happy for you and I really want you to win the national title.’ He did the same to me tonight, so I think it’s kind of neat.”
Calipari had taken another phenom-laden roster to the Final Four last year, only to see them come unglued against eventual national champion Connecticut. The Wildcats said all week they weren’t going to let the same thing happen this time, and it showed in their workmanlike effort. No matter how close Louisville got, the Cardinals were never able to control the game. When they made a run, Kentucky found a way to stop it. When one of the Wildcats ran into foul trouble, the others picked him up.
Kentucky played so hard Davis went flying off the court twice, sailing all the way onto media row once.
“They made runs, and we made our runs. That’s what coach always says,” said Terrence Jones, who finished with six points and seven rebounds. “We never get rattled.”
Bigger, bulkier and with Davis having a wider wingspan than some small airplanes, 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 some breathing room.
After Siva made a pair of free throws, 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.
“They were the better team today,” Siva said.
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 and assistant coaches from Kansas and Ohio State scrambling to try and find a way to stop this juggernaut.
Kentucky shot a dazzling 57 percent — yes, that’s right — with Davis leading the way. He missed just one of his eight shots and finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds, and let his play speak for itself, not showing any emotion until those closing seconds of the game.
“Anthony Davis is just the No.1 player in the draft,” Pitino said of the 19-year-old freshman, who has won just about every player of the year award there is. “When you’re playing against Bill Russell on the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 world championships.”
Miller added 13 points, and Doron Lamb had 10. Kidd-Gilchrist had nine, all in the second half.
Siva led the Cardinals with 11 points, and Gorgui Dieng had 12 rebounds.
“I told the guys, ‘Look, I’m going to Miami tomorrow and celebrating a season where we worked around the clock, around injuries and everything else. If you guys don’t celebrate and have good, clean fun, you’re fools,’” Pitino said.
The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry causes 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 two 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. But boy, did it make for a great show. The game was such a big deal that No. 1 Kentucky fan Ashley Judd wasn’t even the biggest celeb in the house, with Jay-Z taking a prime seat behind the Kentucky bench.
“It’s our fans; our fans are great to us,” Davis said. “Our fans travel a long way. We want to go out here and give them a show and give them what they want, which is a national championship.”
The ultimate bragging rights sure are a nice way to start.
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 — almost the exact score as Saturday night’s win.
The Wildcats know they’re talented — there are three, maybe as many as five NBA lottery picks on the Kentucky roster — but they play without ego or cockiness, choosing instead to let their superior play overwhelm their opponents.
The Cardinals had skidded into the Big East tournament with four losses in their last six games, including back-to-back defeats to end the regular season. Pitino told his players they could either go home after the first week of the tournament or they could do something special — their choice.
The Cardinals chose the latter, ripping off four wins in four days to win the Big East tournament and ousting No. 1 seed Michigan State in the West Regional semifinals. Then came that comeback against rough-and-tumble Florida.
Those games hardened the Cardinals, and they promised they weren’t simply happy to reach the Final Four. But they sure looked it early on, getting off to a slow, sloppy start. It didn’t help that Dieng looked petrified of Davis and Siva was playing at hyperspeed, a pace Pitino has been trying to get him to tone down all year.
When they tried to go inside, Davis was less forgiving than a bouncer at a Hollywood club. When the Cardinals went outside, the Wildcats swarmed and forced them to take off-balance shots. Meanwhile, on the other end, Kentucky scored at will, repeatedly picking on Siva and Dieng.
But there’s a reason Pitino has taken three teams to the Final Four. He pulled out every trick he had, switching strategies, begging the refs for calls and finding a way — finally — to calm his team down.
“Any time you don’t know whether a team is better offensively or defensively, you know you’ve got a great basketball team,” Pitino said. “And Anthony Davis is incredible.”