Kentucky will try to win its eighth NCAA championship in its first appearance since last winning in 1998 after earning a 69-61 victory over Bluegrass State rival Louisville.
NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky owns the Bluegrass State. Now it can concentrate on the rest of the country.
Anthony Davis and top-seeded Kentucky will play for the national title Monday night after finally putting away pesky Louisville 69-61 in the Final Four on Saturday night.
It will be Kentucky’s first appearance in the title game since winning a seventh NCAA crown in 1998 and gives coach John Calipari another shot at the title that has eluded him. The Wildcats (37-2) will face Kansas, a winner over Ohio State.
As the final seconds ticked down, Davis pointed to the court and screamed twice “This is my stage!”
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Yes, yes, it is.
With Davis, everybody’s player of the year, leading a star-studded roster, Kentucky was the top seed in the tournament and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets when the whole tournament was done. And Calipari wouldn’t let his young players consider anything else, saying repeatedly this was “just another game.”
But playing in-state rival Louisville (30-10) is never just that, and the Cardinals made Kentucky work deep into the second half to grind this victory out.
Louisville outrebounded Kentucky 40-33, including a whopping 19-6 advantage on the offensive glass — the sole reason the Cardinals were able to make a game of this.
“I just said John, ‘I’ll be pulling for you, bring the trophy back home to Kentucky,’ ” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “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.
“We like their basketball team; we hope they bring it home for the state.”
Said Calipari of Louisville: “They never stopped playing. They got up into our bodies, created turnovers and gave themselves a chance to win.”
Bigger, bulkier and with the 19-year-old freshman Davis having a wider wingspan than some small airplanes, the Wildcats looked like playground bullies as they pushed Louisville around on their way to a 13-point lead early in the second half. But the Cardinals know a thing about rallies after coming from 11 points down to beat Florida in last weekend’s West Regional final, and they sure made Kentucky sweat.
Russ Smith made back-to-back buckets to start a 15-3 run, and Peyton Siva, the former Franklin High star, capped it with a three-pointer from NBA range that tied the score at 49 with 9:11 to play. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played just 23 minutes because of foul trouble, made back-to-back buckets to give the Wildcats some breathing room.
After Siva made a pair of free throws, Terrence Jones scored on a jumper and Darius Miller drilled a three-pointer — only Kentucky’s second of the game — to give the Wildcats control for good.
“I’m proud of this team. They’re coming together,” Calipari said. “They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville did today, and they’ve held their own, so I’m proud of them.”
Just to make sure Louisville didn’t get any wild notions about another late comeback, Kidd-Gilchrist threw down a monstrous dunk with 1:05 to play that had Kentucky fans on their feet and assistant coaches from Kansas and Ohio State scrambling to try and find a way to stop this juggernaut.
Kentucky shot a dazzling 57 percent with Davis leading the way. He missed just one of his eight shots and finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Miller had 13 points, and Doron Lamb had 10.
“We’re one game closer to our dream and our goals,” Davis said.
Siva led the Cardinals with 11 points, and Gorgui Dieng had 12 rebounds.
With the NCAA title game on the line, the latest skirmish in basketball’s version of the civil war so divided the small hoop-crazed state that senior citizens actually came to fisticuffs and made for must-see TV. The game was such a big deal that No. 1 Kentucky fan Ashley Judd wasn’t even the biggest celeb in the house, with Jay-Z taking a prime seat behind the Kentucky bench.
“It’s our fans; our fans are great to us,” Davis said. “Our fans travel a long way. We want to go out here and give them a show and give them what they want, which is a national championship.”
Percentages: FG .348, FT .692. Three-point goals: 4-11, .364 (C. Smith 1-2, Kuric 1-2, Blackshear 1-2, Siva 1-2, R. Smith 0-1, Behanan 0-2). Team rebounds: 3. Blocked shots: 4 (Dieng 4). Turnovers: 12 (Dieng 3, R. Smith 3, Siva 3, Behanan 2, C. Smith). Steals: 5 (Dieng 2, R. Smith 2, Kuric). Technical fouls: none.
Percentages: FG .571, FT .550. Three-point goals: 2-7, .286 (Wiltjer 1-1, Miller 1-4, Lamb 0-2). Team rebounds: 1. Blocked shots: 7 (Davis 5, Jones 2). Turnovers: 14 (Kidd-Gilchrist 4, Lamb 4, Davis 3, Teague 2, Miller). Steals: 7 (Jones 2, Miller 2, Teague, Wiltjer, Davis). Technical fouls: none.
Officials: Les Jones, Doug Shows, Joe DeRosa.