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Championship moments: Team effort propels Wildcats to title

Every championship team is defined by championship moments. They happen behind closed doors in practices, during regular season games, and, of course, in the championship game. The following is the seventh in a series of articles chronicling the championship moments during the 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season. Today we finish the series UK’s by looking back at the defining moment of the 2011-12 Wildcats: the meshing of a team.

“It’s just another game.”

That is the mantra Kentucky head coach John Calipari preached to his team as he led his Wildcats through their 2012 March Madness charge. Coach Cal didn’t want his team to get caught up in who they were playing; instead, he wanted his squad to stay focused on what they needed to accomplish in order to win. If that wasn’t enough to come out on top, then so be it, we know we gave it our best shot, was essentially Coach Cal’s message to his team.

Calipari’s squad not only listened, they embraced the concept.

“I’m just worried about us,” Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said about playing in the Final Four. “That’s it. I don’t worry about anyone else.”

Calipari also knew it didn’t matter who the Cats played. The opposition was going to play its game of the year in an effort to take down mighty Kentucky. But the Big Blue Nation, perhaps more than at any time in history, was abuzz with talk about UK’s familiar Final Four opponent –  the Louisville Cardinals.

Calipari, though, against an avalanche of coverage from around the nation – coverage which exploited the rich UK vs. U of L storyline with great proficiency — stood his ground.

“We know every game we play is someone’s Super Bowl,” Cal said before the Final Four. “We opened up the season by beating Kansas. You don’t think they want a piece of us? We beat Louisville earlier in the year. They’re going crazy to beat us. Let me say this, so was Vandy, so was Florida, so was North Carolina. Everybody we play is that way, so it’s not as though this is any different than any other game we play. The other team’s going to play out of their mind. We know it.”

Importantly, and quite telling, Cal’s mindset was again bluntly echoed by his team’s take-no-prisoners leader.

Perhaps because of that steady focus, a focus which was present in the youthful Wildcat squad nearly all season, it was Kentucky who got out to a strong start in its Final Four matchup with the Cards. Taking a quick 16-6 lead with 13:21 left in the half, the Cats were clearly the aggressors as they executed a series of layups courtesy of Marquis Teague, midrange jumpers by Doron Lamb, and dunks by Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones. Kentucky, simply and impressively, asserted its offensive will on the nation’s top statistical defense.

“I kept telling them to keep attacking,” Cal said after the game. “I want them to be aggressive. We’re an attacking team, that’s what we are. I don’t want them to change.”

It was Louisville, though, who answered the Cats’ challenge, and kept the Kentucky lead manageable, with UK eventually going into halftime up seven, 35-28.

The second half unfolded much like the first with Kentucky opening a 13-point lead with 16:14 to play. It was UK 45, U of L 32 as Miller and Davis’ versatility around the basket began to pay dividends. But the Cards, who fought through adversity all season, responded to Kentucky’s sprinting start to the second half by going on a 17-4 run, closing the gap from a 13-point deficit to a 49-all tie with just over nine minutes remaining.

In true championship fashion, the Cats never relinquished the lead. They instead imposed their considerable will on the Cards, galloping to the gate with a championship in sight.

“They made runs, we made our runs,” Jones said after the contest. “That’s what Coach always says; we don’t get rattled.”

And it was Miller, a senior, who coolly and confidently scored five straight points for the Cats, drilling a 3-pointer to put UK up 58-51. Only 39 seconds later, he hit two pressure-packed free throws, giving UK a 60-51 advantage with only 4:29 left.

This was the same Miller who, only 14 months earlier, passed on a wide-open, game-clinching 3-point shot in a loss to Ole Miss; this was the same Miller who experienced a crisis in confidence for much of his career; this was the same Miller who, at one time, was most famous for his deferential nature and unselfish ways.

It was the new Darius, though, the Darius who all season long owned the final minutes, who stepped up when the Cats needed him the most in their 69-61 Final Four victory.

“I’m proud of this team,” Coach Cal said after the game. “They’re coming together. They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville did today, and they’ve held their own, so I’m proud of them.”

———–

Anthony Davis finished the season with 186 blocks, the new NCAA single-season record for blocked shots in a season. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

On a night when Davis proved beyond any reasonable doubt, that he doesn’t have to score to be the best player on the floor, it was a legendary team effort by the Wildcats which placed UK at the apex of the mountaintop.

Spurred by Kidd-Gilchrist’s emphatically energetic first-half play, a half in which MKG scored all 11 of his points on 4-of-5 shooting as he helped hold KU’s Thomas Robinson to 3-of-11 shooting, Kentucky shot to an 18-point lead, 39-21, with 2:59 left in the first half.

It was Davis, though, who was became the story. Despite scoring zero points in the first half, he dominated the game everywhere else, recording nine rebounds, four assists and three blocks, showing the world why his trophy case is bigger than most people’s garage.

And the fact his teammates responded to Davis’ struggle to score serves as a perfect illustration of how the Wildcats, all year long, picked up one another.

“Well, it’s not me, it’s these guys behind me,” Davis said about his teammates. “They led us this whole tournament. I told my team, every time down, you all score the ball; I’m just gonna defend and rebound.”

Defend and rebound is precisely what Davis did, grabbing boards (he finished with 16), blocking and altering shots (six swats), and dishing dimes (team-high six assists). It was Spider-man’s big-man versatility at its best. Even the one shot Davis made, a sweet 10-foot sideline jumper, was big as it sent UK to a 59-44 lead with 5:13 remaining.

“He was terrific,” Kansas coach Bill Self said about Davis. “The basket he made was one of the biggest baskets of the game.”

It was Davis’ unique ability to control a game without scoring the ball, though, which had his coach glowingly satisfied with his big man.

“I love the fact Anthony Davis goes 1 for 10, and you all say he was the biggest factor in the game,” Calipari said after the contest. “I asked these guys what they would do without scoring. You (now) have an idea what he does.”

What Davis’ teammates were doing as he purposefully patrolled the middle was what they had been doing all year long, playing with purpose and one, common goal: to win.

Lamb was making shots, as he netted 22-points on 3-of-6 long-range shooting

Teague was scoring when he needed to while keeping his running mates involved, as he tallied 14 points and three dimes

Miller was filling a void, as he recorded a season-high six rebounds

MKG was lighting the fire, as he set the first-half tone with 11 points and played relentless defense

Jones was putting in a typically yeoman’s effort with nine points and seven boards, to go along with two of UK’s 11 blocks

“I wanted everybody to see we were the best team this season,” Calipari said as he basked in his team’s championship effort. “We were the best team. I wanted this to be one for the ages.”