NEW ORLEANS – Emerging from the locker room 20 minutes after the game, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, Darius Miller and Marquis Teague were in rhythm – as they have been all season – when they sung a fitting tune on their way to postgame interviews.
“We’re going to the ‘ship, we’re going to ‘ship,” they sang.
At least for a few minutes, they were going to enjoy making it to their first national title game. For a program that expects to hang national title banners, it’s been far too long – 14 years – since it’s had that chance
Faced with unprecedented pregame hype for Kentucky and Louisville’s first matchup in the Final Four, UK rallied early and hung on late to defeat Cardinals 69-61 Saturday and advance to its 11th championship. With their archrival out of the way, the Cats will play Kansas on Monday at 9:23 p.m. ET for its eight national championship.
“To us, it was the next game,” said senior guard and Kentucky native Darius Miller, who scored 13 important points, many of them in pivotal situations. “Whether we (were) playing Louisville, Texas, Georgetown, whoever, we (were) going to try to come out and play with the same intensity; prepared the same all week. It’s just the next game.
“Our main goal is to win a championship, not to beat a certain team.”
It’s UK’s first trip to the final game of the season since Tubby Smith’s Cats won it all in 1998 and John Calipari’s second national championship game.
“We played good, but that wasn’t our best,” Coach Cal said. “Maybe Monday is our best.”
The nation’s player of the year, Anthony Davis, led Kentucky back to the title game with another dominating performance. The freshman forward recorded 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. His 20th double-double of the season tied DeMarcus Cousins’ freshman record, and he is the first player to have at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Final Four game since Danny Manning in 1988.
As the final buzzer approached and an enormous chunk of the Big Blue Nation stood on its feet at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Davis dribbled out the clock, launched the ball in the air and yelled out “This is my stage!”
There’s still more work to be done, but it felt good for the young guns with so much pressure on their shoulders to reach their final stop
“Very emotional,” is how Davis described his feelings after the game. “We fought all game. With the goal to (go) to a national championship with the team that we have, starting three freshmen and two sophomores, it’s been great. We had a great team.
“We’re just one game closer to our dream and our goals.”
A year after playing anxiously on the Final Four’s big stage, UK seemed to welcome it Saturday. Amid unparalleled buzz, the national spotlight and 70,000-plus fans at the cavernous Superdome (most of them in UK blue or U of L red), the Cats played confidently from tip to finish.
Making eight of its first 11 shots en route to an early 10-point lead, UK quickly erased thoughts of last year’s cold shooting night in the 2011 Final Four. The Cats shot 60.0 percent in the first half and 57.1 percent for the game while holding Louisville to 34.8 percent.
Louisville hung around for most of the game and erased Kentucky’s 13-point lead in the second half with some dominating board work. With Gorgui Dieng and Change Behanan leading the Cardinals to a plus-seven rebounding margin, U of L tied the game at 49-49 on a Peyton Siva 3-pointer from the top of the key.
“We had to keep fighting,” Davis said. “Some plays you had to go after the ball with one hand. They (were) tipping it away and grabbing the ball. We needed to come down with more rebounds.”
The tension was setting up for one of Kentucky’s patented runs.
Doing what they’ve done so frequently throughout the season and in the NCAA Tournament, the Cats took control of the game with a devastating 11-2 run after Louisville tied it.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who was saddled with foul trouble for most of the game, shook off three missed free throws and ended the 15-3 U of L run. The freshman forward scored four straight, including a 360-degree spin in the paint that he used as a springboard for an emphatic dunk.
“It was nice,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “It felt good. It was my second bucket, so it felt good.”
With Louisville reeling, Miller knocked down the game-defining dagger to put UK up seven. Terrence Jones, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist pounded the final nails in the coffin with ferocious dunks in the closing minutes.
At the next timeout, Coach Cal embraced Miller for knocking down the trey.
“I don’t know if he hugged me,” Calipari said. “I hugged him, though.”
“At the timeout, he came out and said, ‘That’s what I was telling you, just stay on the shot.’ It was an emotional game for us.”
Freshman guard Marquis Teague found Miller with the pass and finished with eight points and five rebounds. Sophomore guard Doron Lamb was the third and only other Wildcat in double figures with 10 points.
After the game, former UK coach and current Louisville general Rick Pitino shook Coach Cal’s hand at midcourt and told him “to bring home that trophy to the state of Kentucky.”
“I think that’s neat,” Calipari said of the gesture. “When I was at UMass, I can remember hugging him and telling him (after the 1996 Final Four game), ‘I’m happy for you and I really want you to win the national title.’ He did the same for me tonight.”
Calipari and Kentucky are one game away from doing exactly that.
Davis wins John R. Wooden Award