Louisville’s Chris Smith hit a jumper 17 seconds into their match with Kentucky on Saturday, giving the Cardinals a 2-0. That would be the last time Louisville would lead in the entire game. Kentucky’s 69-61 win booked the Wildcats their first trip to the national championship game since 1998.
The bitter in-state rivalry lived up to its hype. But it wasn’t always pretty. Louisville scraped and clawed like a rodent fighting for its life while trying to overcome Kentucky’s superior talent. Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad made it very clear that they were going to try and run with Kentucky and be aggressive. Some experts thought Louisville's big man, Gorgui Dieng, might be the answer to stop Kentucky’s dominant front court presence, but Dieng only went 3 of 10 from the field and could not contain Anthony Davis. They did, however, out-rebound Kentucky 37-32 and had 16 offensive rebounds, including a 6-1 advantage over Kentucky in the first half.
During Kentucky and Louisville’s New Year’s Eve match-up, Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was unstoppable scoring 24 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. But in today’s match-up, the men in stripes shut him down with two quick fouls, making Kidd-Gilchrist sit the final 13 and a half minutes of the first half, and never got into flow throughout the game. It didn’t make a difference in the half as Kentucky shot 60 percent from the field,holding Louisville to 37 percent shooting. Kentucky went into the locker room ahead 35-28.
Then Davis came out and showed the world why he was Player of the Year. Davis hit 7 of 8 from the field, pouring in 18 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, and swatted away 5 shots for his Wildcats. Davis was the first player to put up those types of numbers in a Final Four since Danny Manning in 1988. The Wildcats blitzed Louisville at the beginning of the second half, going on a 10-1 run, giving the Cats their biggest lead of the game.
But Louisville wasn’t finished just yet. Louisville has shown recently they were no stranger to comebacks. They erased an 11 point lead against Florida in last week’s Regional Final where the Cards booked their trip to the Final Four. Louisville went on a 15-3 run, putting Kentucky back on their heels. Peyton Siva’s three-pointer at the top of the key tied it at 49-49 with less than 10 minutes to play.
Then Kentucky woke up.
Kidd-Gilchrist hit back-to-back baskets, and senior leader, Darius Miller, drilled a three-pointer from the wing, putting Kentucky up for good.
And if that were not enough, Kentucky’s Davis threw down a dunk that seemed like an audition for next year’s NBA All Star Weekend. As the clock hit zero, the young Kentucky team finally showed some emotion. While Davis was being hugged by teammates, he made sure the New Orleans crowd knew one thing.. “This is my stage!” yelled Davis.
When the dust had settled, Kentucky shot 57 percent from the field. They did, however, seem like a classic John Calipari team at the free throw line, only shooting 55 percent from the stripe– a stat that they will need to improve if they want to cut down the nets Monday night.
After the game, despite the documented hostility amongst the two head coaches, Rick Pitino had this to say in regards to his counterpart, John Calipari, "I just said John, I'll be pulling for you, bring the trophy back home to Kentucky. Sometimes there's a lot of talk about these guys fighting…dialysis…there's also really a lot of people that get along….For those that have brains, they root for each other.” Then Pitino followed with “"We like their basketball team; we hope they bring it home for the state."
You’re not the only one, Rick. Kentucky’s crazed fans have waited 14 years for another championship to hang at Rupp Arena. A win Monday night would give Kentucky their 8th national title in school history, only trailing UCLA by three for the most national titles in college basketball history.
The only person that has had to wait longer than the Kentucky faithful? John Calipari. With nearly 25 years of coaching, the National Championship has eluded Calipari and not being able to win “the big one” has always been the criticism of the legendary coach. His best shot came in 2008 with the Derrick Rose lead Memphis Tigers. But with a shot that has come to be known as “Mario’s Miracle”, Kansas’ Mario Chalmers last second three-pointer sent the game into overtime where Kansas eventually won the national championship.
On Moday night, we will see if Calipari can get the 1,000 pound gorilla off his back. In a tournament of rematches for Kentucky, how fitting is it, that Calipari gets another rematch against Kansas and their head coach Bill Self for the national title?
Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS