NEW ORLEANS — With 71 seconds left in Monday’s national title game, Kentucky star freshman Anthony Davis stepped to the free throw line with his team nursing a five-point lead that was fast evaporating.
When Davis missed the first free throw, Wildcats Coach John Calipari’s mind must have flashed back to 2008 and all those errant free throws by the Memphis team he was then coaching and the squandered nine-point late-game lead against a Kansas team coached in 2008, and Monday, by Bill Self.
But unlike 2008, Calipari won his elusive first national title after Davis, freshman Marquis Teague and the rest of the Wildcats made enough free throws. With a 67-59 victory over Kansas at the Superdome, Kentucky became one of the youngest teams to win a national title. The Wildcats (38-2) earned their eighth national championship in school history and their first since 1998.
“I told my wife, ‘I am glad it’s done.’ I don’t have to hear the drama,” Calipari said afterward. “It’s almost like,‘Done, Let’s move on.’ ”
Hailed as perhaps the best recruiter of the modern era, Calipari’s greatest challenge during his first national championship season was how to get some of the most talented players he has ever coach, almost all underclassmen, to sacrifice individual scoring totals for team accomplishment.
All season, Calipari challenged players by asking, “How do you help us when you are not scoring?” And in the most significant game of Calipari’s career, no one better illustrated his point than Davis, who dominated the national title game in every way except scoring.
Big Blue Nation erupted when Davis made his first field goal of the game with 5 minutes 14 seconds remaining, and Kentucky seemed on its way to punctuating one of the most dominant seasons by a team in recent memory. Davis finished with six points, 16 rebounds, five assists and six blocks, which tied a championship game record. He was named the most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament.
After the game, Davis was asked if he were frustrated by his shooting struggles (he made 1 of 10 field goal attempts).
“Not at all,” he said. “I just played defense and blocked shots. I made them second-guess their shots.”
Said Calipari: “At halftime, before he left locker room, I said: ‘Listen, don’t worry about not scoring. You are the best player on the court.’ ”
Monday night was a seminal moment for a one-of-a-kind, controversial coach who saw two of his three previous Final Four appearances — Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 — vacated. His recruiting philosophy remains under attack by critics, but Calipari does not apologize for encouraging his best recruits to use Kentucky, which has been dubbed One-and-Done U., as a one-year pit stop on the way to the NBA.
And in one weekend, Calipari managed to exorcise two demons. He beat longtime nemesis Rick Pitino and in-state rival Louisville in Saturday’s national semifinal. And Monday he beat Self, the coach who engineered Kansas’s thrilling overtime victory in that 2008 national title game.
After leading by 18 points, Kentucky appeared on the verge of a similar late-game collapse when Thomas Robinson’s two free throws cut the deficit to seven points with just less than four minutes to play. But Kansas had no Mario Chalmers — who made the game-tying three-pointer in 2008 — and Kentucky had enough resolve to close out the game.
“In the under-four timeout, I told the guys, ‘Hey, we were down nine with two minutes left in ’08,’ ” Self said. “It crossed my mind. But we just didn’t have the mojo tonight.”
This had been billed as a glamorous matchup between the two all-time winningest programs in college basketball and the two players — Davis and Robinson — who had been vying for national player of the year honors all season.
Kentucky had already beaten Kansas (32-7) by 10 points on Nov. 15. Robinson in particular was eager for “payback” after admittedly being physically dominated by the Wildcats. Physicality defined much of the first half Monday, even though the Jayhawks rarely turned much of the contact into points.
There was Robinson and Terrence Jones jostling in the paint as Robinson tried to establish deep position. On the other end, Jones knocked Robinson back with a bump and threw down an early dunk.
Moments later, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who went to the ground earlier in the game on a hard foul, barreled to the basket and flipped the ball in before falling backward and appearing to hit his head on the court.
The Wildcats blocked four shots in the game’s first nine minutes and finished with 11, which set the NCAA title game record. One of the blocks was made by Davis, who missed all four of his field goal attempts in the half but contributed nine rebounds and four assists.
Self called a timeout after Teague, who had been hesitant to shoot while open three weeks ago, sank a three-pointer to give the Wildcats a 12-point lead with 7:17 to play.
Doron Lamb and senior Darius Miller added two more three-pointers, and before Kansas knew it, the Jayhawks found themselves in a comfortable position: trailing by double digits.
But the opponent Monday wasn’t Ohio State, which squandered a 13-point first-half lead in Saturday’s national semifinals. And Kansas’s usual emotional leader, Robinson, was a non-factor most of the first half, making just two of his first 10 field goal attempts.
Now that he finally secured the national title, Calipari must look ahead to life without a number of players who likely will be playing in the NBA in the near future.
“There are six first-rounders on this team,” Calipari said. “That’s why I have to go recruiting on Friday.”