If Kentucky goes on and wins the national title on Monday night, John Calipari and his players will almost certainly point to a moment about midway through the second half on Saturday night as one that gave them a sense of exactly what kind of basketball team they have become this season.
What had once been a double-digit Kentucky lead had evaporated. Louisville point guard Peyton Siva had just drilled a three-point shot from the top of the key and, with 9 minutes 12 seconds left, Kentucky and Louisville were tied at 49.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino was down on one knee, doing a double-fist pump. Calipari was screaming at his players to stay calm even though it looked as if his head might come completely off and float into the rafters of the Superdome. The blue-clad Kentucky fans, who had taken over the streets of the city for the last two days, were buzzing — not so much with anticipation but with just a little bit of fear.
What couldn’t possibly happen was suddenly not completely impossible.
Except that it was impossible.
“This team has had teams come at them all year,” Calipari said, clearly exhausted after winning his very personal duel with Pitino by a final margin of 69-61. “They respond.”
Indeed they do — and they did.
Twenty-six seconds after Siva’s basket, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who didn’t have a field goal until that moment, dunked off Anthony Davis’s only missed field goal attempt of the evening for a 51-49 lead. Russ Smith, Pitino’s sometimes out-of-control backup point guard, got out of control and turned over the ball. Kidd-Gilchrist dunked again, his second and last field goal.
Louisville then missed nine shots in a row, in part because every one of them was contested. By the time Chane Behanen dunked with 2:54 left, Kentucky had pieced together an 11-2 run and the moment had passed.
“We just missed some shots,” Pitino said. “This wasn’t a great shooting team and we couldn’t make shots during that period. A lot of it, though, was their defense. They’re a great defensive team.”
The reason they’re great can be described in two words: Anthony Davis. There’s no doubt Kentucky is loaded. Pitino made a point of saying that Davis was certain to be the first pick in the NBA draft but also noted that Kidd-Gilchrist, in spite of his off night, was probably going to go No. 2 or No. 3. Marquis Teague, the third freshman starter, shows maturity often not seen in senior point guards.
You can go on and on. Much will be made of the three-pointer (one of two Kentucky made in the game) that the team’s lone senior starter, Darius Miller, made to stretch the margin to 58-51 with 5:08 to play. Calipari was so relieved after that shot went in that he hugged Miller as he came to the bench after Pitino had called a timeout.