Posted: Saturday March 31, 2012 11:53PM ; Updated: Sunday April 1, 2012 12:09AM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Wildcats soak in Bluegrass victory over Louisville, eye national title

Story Highlights

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist struggled early in Kentucky's 69-61 victory over Louisville

Kentucky pulled ahead with help of Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Darius Miller

Louisville coach Rick Pitino: Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is

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Davis, Kentucky defeat Louisville in Final Four faceoff
Source:SI
Anthony Davis and Darius Miller combine for 31 points as Kentucky beats Louisville 69-61 on Saturday.

NEW ORLEANS -- The facade finally cracked Saturday.

As the buzzer sounded on Kentucky's 69-61 win against archrival Louisville on college basketball's biggest stage, Wildcats Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague piled in for a group hug at midcourt. Then, because one celebration wasn't enough for a win this monumental, Kidd-Gilchrist ran down the floor and bearhugged center Anthony Davis.

For the past two weeks, Kentucky players have dispatched their NCAA tournament foes with a cold precision. Sure, they smiled and said the right things after their victories, but as prohibitive favorites to win the tournament, they acted most of the time like businessmen meeting clients in Peoria. Saturday, with their tickets punched to Monday's national title game, the Wildcats finally celebrated. As they left the floor, they unleashed something that looked an awful lot like joy.

"This is a dream come true," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I'm here."

For the freshman from New Jersey, Saturday could have been a nightmare. With 10:19 remaining and Kentucky leading 48-42, Gilchrist's stat line looked messier than a Jackson Pollock painting. In 15 minutes, he had four turnovers, three fouls and zero points.

The Cardinals had weathered Kentucky's initial burst and seemed determined to deny the Wildcats the destiny predicted for them when a superclass of freshmen (Kidd-Gilchrist, Davis and Teague) teamed with two sophomore holdovers from last year's Final Four team (Lamb and Terrence Jones) and an experienced senior from the Bluegrass State (Darius Miller). Louisville's Chane Behanan sank two free throws. Then Cardinals point guard Peyton Siva drained a jumper over Kidd-Gilchrist. In the meantime, Kidd-Gilchrist missed three of four free throws.

After a pair of Kidd-Gilchrist misses, Siva faced Teague at the top of the key. Siva bounced toward the lane, then crossed over and pulled back. The move sent Teague sprawling, and Siva drilled a three-pointer that tied the score at 49 with 9:12 remaining. Kentucky's team of destiny looked awfully vulnerable.

Then came what Louisville guard Russ Smith called "one offensive rebound that hurt us." To that point, the Cardinals had dominated the Wildcats on the boards. At the 10:19 mark, they were outrebounding Kentucky 31-20 -- and only three of Kentucky's rebounds had come on the offensive end. "We knew they were going to play like starving dogs on the glass," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of his team. "We haven't eaten in a week, and the only food for us is the rebound." Unfortunately for Louisville, the Cardinals left a scrap for the Wildcats.

Davis missed a short jumper, but grabbed his own rebound. Trapped near the baseline, Davis found Kidd-Gilchrist for a layup. Kidd-Gilchrist had broken his scoring drought, and the Wildcats had finally fought back on the glass. After that, the game would never be tied again.

On Kentucky's next possession, Kidd-Gilchrist drove from the top of the key. He spun, sending Louisville's Kyle Kuric flying, and slammed the ball home with two hands. "He has his own breed of personality," Louisville wing Wayne Blackshear said of Kidd-Gilchrist. "He has a motor that never stops."

A few minutes later, Kentucky led by four when Teague drove toward the free throw line. Seeing a defender established in the lane, Teague spun around and passed to Miller on the wing. Miller hit the three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 58-51 lead, and Kentucky's bench exploded. After Pitino called timeout to regroup, Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua congratulated Teague and coach John Calipari hugged Miller.

No other possession packed so much symbolism. Teague, who arrived at Kentucky as a shoot-first, sometimes infuriating former AAU star, had matured. Earlier in the season, Teague would have said damn the torpedoes and gotten himself called for a charge. Instead, in a four-point game in the Final Four, Teague exchanged a turnover for an assist on a three-pointer. That the man who hit the shot was Miller meant even more. As a freshman, Miller suffered through the final year of Billy Gillispie's tenure. As a sophomore and junior, he started on teams talented enough to compete for a national title. This season, Miller graciously accepted the sixth man role because it gave his team the best chance to win. So when that shot fell, it meant a lot. "I don't know if he hugged me," Calipari said of Miller. "I hugged him, though."

Still, Louisville kept the score relatively close. With less than 90 seconds remaining, the Cardinals trailed by only five. That's when Kidd-Gilchrist tossed the ball in the air and hoped his freakish freshman teammate would make more magic. Kidd-Gilchrist's lob looked wide of the mark, and if it hadn't been thrown to Davis, it probably would have resulted in a turnover. Instead, Davis reached back, grabbed the ball with one hand and flushed it. When the ball left his hand, Kidd-Gilchrist had no idea whether Davis could catch it. "I just threw it anyway," Kidd-Gilchrist said with a smile. That didn't bother Calipari one bit. "I want them to be aggressive," he said. "We're an attacking team. That's what we are."

They're also a defending team built around Davis, who can change an opponent's offense even when he isn't blocking shots. Saturday, Davis swatted everything close, finishing with five blocks to go with 14 rebounds and 18 points. "The greatest thing about him," Calipari said, "is his teammates make him better and he makes his teammates better."

So just how good have the Wildcats made one another? Pitino might have an idea. After all, he coached The Untouchables, the 1996 Kentucky team that ripped through the NCAA tournament -- a run that included a win against Calipari's Massachusetts team. "We were a very deep team -- much deeper than this team. But their six are every bit as good as our six, so you can't really compare eras," Pitino said. "I will say this. That Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is. They have a great basketball team, one that I know John is really proud of. To tell you the truth, I haven't always liked some of the Kentucky teams. I'm not going to lie to you. But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play."

After the game, Pitino told Calipari he would be rooting for the Wildcats to bring the national title back to the Bluegrass. "When I was at UMass, I remember hugging him and telling him, 'I'm happy for you, and I really want you to win the national title.' He did the same to me tonight."

Pitino said he can't fault his team's effort or mourn Saturday's loss too much. "It was like preparing for the Olympics," Pitino said. "You just work so hard every single day, gave some extraordinary effort, then at the end you're on the podium and they're playing somebody else's national anthem." Still, the Cardinals knew they had the Wildcats on the ropes. As he left the court, Smith stared at the ground. Smith didn't even notice fellow Brooklyn native Jay-Z, seated behind the Kentucky bench with hoops powerbroker William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley, screaming to get his attention.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats handed out hugs as they left the court. Kidd-Gilchrist smiled. Davis screamed. They were supposed to get here, but they acted as if they had no idea it would feel so good.

 
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