The Superdome in New Orleans has known great tragedy in its past. But last night, it saw the height of jubilation (for Kentucky Wildcat fans, at least), as Kentucky employed every one of its offensive and defensive weapons to easily defeat Kansas, 67-59, capturing its eighth NCAA men’s basketball championship. Kentucky led by as many as eighteen points in a couple of instances during the evening, and only a 13-3 run by Kansas in the second half prevented this game from being a total blowout.
Anthony Davis, widely regarded as this year’s best overall college basketball player, had only one field goal in ten attempts; but contributed mightily in other areas – including twenty rebounds (sixteen of them defensive), and six blocked shots. And when he wasn’t outright blocking shots, he was causing the Kansas shooters to hurry or alter their attempts – particularly when they were driving the lane. It’s conceivable they would have been as successful scoring under the net blindfolded. Overall, Kentucky players blocked eleven Kansas shots as opposed to five total for the Jayhawks.
Kentucky’s dynamic forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and clutch guard Marquis Teague were supplemented in their double-figure scoring performances by the outstanding contributions of guard Doron Lamb, who tossed in 22 points to help keep the Wildcats out in front almost wire to wire. The trio combined to shoot 54% from the field.
Although Kansas got three players into double-figure scoring, including strong forward Thomas Robinson and guards Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, their bench, in thirty total minutes on the floor, couldn’t score a point.
The Jayhawks' third guard, Travis Releford, who averaged nine points a game during the season, only had two buckets and fouled out in the important last few minutes. And Kansas overall only managed 35% shooting from the floor (12% under their season average). And as the minutes ticked off toward the end of the second half, Kansas was having trouble hitting free throws - which could have narrowed the score somewhat.
Kansas didn’t help their cause any in the last minute of the game with two key turnovers, including a walk by Elijah Johnson and a backcourt violation. Kentucky’s defense was the equivalent of super glue, and forced the Jayhawks into sloppy play when they could least afford it. Kansas coach Bill Self referred to his team's play as running a race on a “muddy track," though the Jayhawks had opportunities. However, after the contest, he was gracious toward the Wildcats and expressed pride and admiration for his team.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, who has brought three teams to the Final Four championship (two of which have since been vacated for various reasons by the NCAA) finally got a chance to hoist the NCAA trophy – having lost once before to Self in 2008 when Calipari coached the Memphis Tigers. Calipari, unlike virtually anyone else in Division 1 basketball, can get extraordinary performances out of his players – who on this team were largely a group of freshmen and sophomores. He was forceful in asserting that even though they were a young team, they could succeed if they played together and trusted each other.
After the game, he commented “In the second half I pulled the reins back … They were saying ‘Let us go, let us go…’” It was eerily reminiscent of how Memphis lost that game to Kansas four years ago. But this Kentucky team is and has been more resilient than Calipari's Memphis five, and even though they opened the door a crack for the Jayhawks midway through the second half, they never let them get inside.
When they lost to Indiana last December, it was a demoralizing loss for the Wildcats and could have been the beginning of the end for a team with less mental toughness. But the way Kentucky finished their regular season and how they methodically pushed to the championship game demonstrated so very clearly how focused and determined they were. As much as the players, a considerable amount of that credit has to go to Calipari.
As he soaked up the exhilaration of having won his first national title, Calipari added, “Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be, helping young people, you know, create better lives for themselves and their families, and also helping them prepare for life after basketball.”
As for the Wildcats’ Anthony Davis, there has been much speculation as to whether or not he will enter this year’s NBA draft, where he would certainly be a highly coveted - and highly paid – number one pick. But he is not making any commitments for now, choosing to deliberate with his family. On this night, however, he stood tall, not only physically, but also in his steely resolve, maturity, and outright strength of character.