By Ron Wynn
The University of Kentucky did something Monday night few teams have done in recent college basketball history. They completed a season of domination by winning the national title 67-59 over Kansas. It was the Wildcats eighth national title, and first since 1998. That places them second only to UCLA in terms of NCAA men’s crowns. Kentucky was ranked number one for 20 of the season’s 29 weeks, and ended their stellar year with an outstanding mark of 38-2. The victory also ended years of frustration for coach John Calipari. He had previously taken both UMass and the University of Memphis to the Final Four. As recently as 2008, Calipari was on the sideline when Kansas rallied and defeated a University of Memphis team that seem to have the championship in hand.
Indeed there was a stretch where it seemed Kansas (32-7) might complete another miracle comeback. They were down at one point by 18, and trailed by 16 with only 10 minutes remaining. But they clawed back to within five points at 62-57, and had a chance to cut the gap further. But Kentucky made five consecutive late free throws, while staving off the Jayhawks’ final attempts.
The Wildcats’ prized freshman Anthony Davis had a sensational game despite meager offensive stats. He scored only six points and hit just one of 10 from the field. But Davis had 16 rebounds, six blocked shots (tying a record), five assists and three steals. That performance cemented his selection as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Doron Lamb was Kentucky’s offensive leader. Lamb had 22 points. It was his back-to-back three-pointers that pushed Kentucky’s second half lead to 16 points. Fellow freshman point guard Marquis Teague had 14 points, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 11 (all in the first half), and Terrence Jones had nine points. Jones also helped maintain Kentucky’s inside and rebounding advantages. He blocked two shots and grabbed seven rebounds. Overall, the Wildcats had 11 blocked shots.
That defensive pressure kept Kansas from establishing any offensive flow or consistency. Thomas Robinson tried to match the Wildcats’ ferocity on the boards, and kept shooting despite having numerous tries altered or deflected. Robinson had 18 points and 17 rebounds, showing his place on various All-American teams was well deserved. Point guard Tyshawn Taylor led Kansas with 19 points. But even though Taylor, Robinson and their mates continually charged back from huge deficits, they couldn’t overcome superior depth or their own shooting woes.
They also put themselves in too big of a hole. Kentucky shot 53 percent in the first half, had nine assists on 14 field goals, and outrebounded Kansas 25-14. Only a Jayhawks’ spurt near the end of the first half made it 41-27. It became evident Kansas’ attempts at matching Kentucky’s fast break were misguided. “They share, they defend and they’re playing with pros,” Kansas coach Bill Self told the New York Daily News in describing Kentucky. “That doesn’t hurt.”
“The plan wasn’t to be down by 18,” Self added. “We wanted it to be a one-or-two-or three possession game in the last few minutes. Then the pressure would be on them.” Self added when the Jayhawks were making their last bid, he had a flashback to 2008. “It (a miracle comeback) crossed my mind,” Self said. “But we just didn’t have the mojo tonight like we did back then.”
“This isn’t about me, ” Calipari said. “It’s about the 13 players and Big Blue Nation. This team sacrificed…They weren’t selfish when they could have been because they are so good. They deserve all the accolades. What I wanted them to show today is that they aren’t just a talented team. We defend. We share the ball. We were the best team in the country.’
Calipari also praised Davis’ all-round play. “I love that (Davis) goes 1 for 10 and all think he was the biggest factor in the game. I told him at halftime ‘don’t worry about scoring – you’re the best player in the building.” “It’s not hard to take a backseat (on offense) when you play with this great a group of guys,” Davis said. How many, if any, of Kentucky’s starting five, which consisted of three freshmen and two sophomore, returns will be interesting. There have six players considered sure pros. Both Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are certain lottery picks (Davis is ranked by every draft service as the consensus first player picked in NBA draft if he declares for it).
Decisions on entering the draft must be made by April 29. Kansas’ Robinson, a junior, is also touted as a lottery pick. But whatever happens, Kentucky is already an early favorite to win the 2013 title in some places, among them USA Today.