NEW ORLEANS – Kentucky always has an answer, sometimes before there’s even a question.
With the exception of the Vanderbilt game at the end of the Southeastern Conference championship game, UK has marched its way through the postseason with game-altering runs befitting of a national champion. When the Cats’ feet are held to the fire or the other team is wavering, they’ve had the special ability to put teams away with devastating runs.
- On Saturday in the 69-61 victory over Louisville in the Final Four, it was an 11-2 run after the Cardinals had tied the game at 49-49 that did the trick.
- Against Baylor, UK went on a 16-0 run after falling behind 10-5 in the opening minutes.
- In the rout of Iowa State, the Cats reeled off a staggering 20-2 run after the Cyclones rallied to tie it at 42-42.
- And when Western Kentucky scored 12 straight near the beginning of the second-round matchup, UK put the Hilltoppers away early with a 33-14 stretch going into halftime.
Annually, the last team standing generally develops a killer instinct. This team obviously takes pride in stepping on another team’s throat.
“It’s coming together, that’s what I think,” said freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who scored the first four points in the 11-2 run. “I think it’s a brotherhood, for one, and just confidence, too.”
After Kid-Gilchrist threw down a dunk off a slick 360-degree spin, senior Darius Miller provided the dagger of the game with a 3-pointer from the right elbow. He followed with a pair of free throws before sophomore forward Terrence Jones fought through a foul and crammed in traffic.
“We have a lot of guys who can step up and a lot of different weapons that makes us hard to guard, so no one really knows who is going to score,” freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “We use that to our advantage. We’ve just got a will to win and really push it out. When a team’s getting closer we always make our run.”
Louisville staggered and could never come back. Like they’ve done so many times this season, the Cats had dealt a match-ending blow.
So much for the dome effect
There’s something to the theory that playing in football stadiums and domes has an effect on shooting in the Final Four. The stats clearly back it up.
In the three Final Four games last year at Reliant Stadium in Houston, the four teams combined to shoot a miserable 119 for 347, 34.1 percent. Kentucky did its part in that brick-laying clinic, hitting just 33.9 percent of its field-goal attempts.
Before Saturday’s game, both John Calipari and Rick Pitino admitted the sightlines in a cavernous dome make a difference. Some of the Wildcats said in the days leading up to the game that depth perception was a problem and that they needed to get plenty of shots up.
Coach Cal even joked earlier in the week that he built a stage in the Joe Craft Center, UK’s practice facility, to mimic the stage-like court at the Final Four.
Whatever he did, the preparation paid off.
UK scorched the nets from the start on Saturday, hitting eight of its first 11 shots. The Cats nailed 60.0 percent of their field-goal attempts in the first half and 57.1 percent for the game. According to ESPN, UK’s shooting percentage tied the 2003 national championship Syracuse team for the highest mark in a Final Four game in the last 15 years.
Not bad for a team that combined to shoot 34.1 percent in losses to West Virginia and Connecticut in its previous two Final Four games. Wiltjer, who hit 2-of-3 shots, said the sightlines were greatly exaggerated.
“I don’t see it as that much of a difference,” Wiltjer said. “It’s just all mental, going out there and being confident and shooting the basketball. We were fortunate to make shots.”
It should be noted that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome isn’t quite as cavernous as Reliant Stadium. But, at 74,000-plus seats and what looks to be more than 100 yards from basket to backcourt rising of seats, it’s still plenty big.
Kentucky-Kansas for all the marbles
When Kentucky and Kansas met on Nov. 15 in the Champions Classic, they played on the grandest stage in all of basketball at Madison Square Garden. Who could have known then that nearly four months later they’d meet on the season’s grandest stage in the national championship game?
With a gutty, come-from-behind 64-62 victory over second-seeded Ohio State, Kansas, the No. 2 seed out of the Midwest Regional, has set up a rematch with UK in the national championship game. The bluebloods will go at it on Monday at 9:23 p.m. ET for all the marbles. It’s the first time the two schools, the two winningest program’s in NCAA history, have met in the national title game.
UK won that first meeting in New York 75-65. Doron Lamb led five Wildcats in double figures with 17 points. Tyshawn Taylor had 22 for the Jayhawks.
“I think we can play with anybody and I thought that all year,” said Taylor, who was one assist away from a double-double (10 points, nine assists) in the victory over the Buckeyes. “That was the second game of the season when we played them. I am sure they have (gotten) a lot better, but I know for a fact we got a lot better, too.”
Anthony Davis and Thomas Robinson have been considered the leading candidates for the national player of the year for the better part of the last two months. Davis has won five of the major national awards already, but the nation’s two best players will have a chance to prove themselves on Monday in a head-to-head matchup. According to ESPN, it will be just the fourth time since 1979 that two first-team All-Americans have met in the national championship game.
Davis recorded 14 points, seven blocks and six rebounds the first time. Robinson, who averages 18.2 points and 11.7 rebounds on the year, posted 11 points and 12 boards.
“Kentucky, I haven’t studied them yet, but I’ve watched them enough all year long,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “They’re terrific. They’re great. They got guys that can make plays that you can’t coach. They got pros; all that stuff. But I think we’ve got good players, too.”
Ironically, Calipari’s only other national title appearance was in 2008 at Memphis against Self’s Jayhawks. Kansas was victorious that night, winning 75-68 in overtime.
UK will by vying for its eight national title. Kansas is going for it fourth.
CoachCal.com and Cats Scratches will have plenty of coverage of the UK-KU game on Sunday and Monday. Stay tuned.
Clinching its first trip to the national championship game since 1998, some Kentucky fans took to the streets in Lexington with couch-burning mayhem and car flipping, according to the Lexington-Herald Leader.
In a story published on Kentucky.com, Herald-Leader writers wrote, “State Street, which had become the epicenter of couch burning in recent weeks, was quickly filled with thousands of people, smoke and flying beer bottles. Police in riot gear with fire extinguishers and batons dodged bottles from the growing crowd and tried to stop a raft of couch fires.”
Kentucky defeated archrival Louisville in the first matchup in the Final Four in the rivalry’s storied history, but Coach Cal pleaded with fans after the game not to go overboard.
“Big Blue Nation, I’m as happy as anyone for our players to win, but please celebrate safely tonight,” Calipari said. “Remember, we still have one more to go.”
Lost in the magnitude of reaching the national title game, the 2011-12 Cats set the program’s single-season record for wins with 37 Saturday night. UK broke the 1947-48 team’s mark.