NEW ORLEANS — Any team that wins a national championship has a moment — at least one — when it finds out about itself. The moment can come in the first round, when a low seed suddenly makes a game close. It can come in the final seconds of the national championship game.
But it always comes.
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.
“He had run away from a couple of shots earlier and I kept telling him to stay with it and take his shot,” Calipari said. “I told him: ‘You’re as good a shooter as there is in the country. That’s what I want to see you do.’ ”
Davis, as everyone has figured out by now, is special — a word used to death by Calipari’s mentor Larry Brown, but appropriate in this case. He’s 6 feet 10 but, because he grew late, he has guard-like quickness and agility. He jumps quickly and plays with the kind of intelligence one expects to see when a player is 29, not three weeks past his 19th birthday.
“When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 world championships,” Pitino said. “When you see this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good. Not that their other players aren’t, but he’s so much of a factor.”
Davis’s line for the night read this way: 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 14 rebounds, five blocked shots and uncountable altered shots. His presence inside opened things up offensively for his teammates — the Wildcats shot 57 percent — while his defensive presence played a major role in Louisville shooting just worse than 35 percent.
“He’s done this all year,” Calipari said. Looking at Teague and Miller he said, “Did you think he was any different tonight than most nights?” Both shook their heads on cue.
If Kentucky had a weakness this season, it was supposed to be its lack of experience, with three freshman and two sophomores among the top six players. That’s why the question was raised about the possibility of blinking in the glare of this spotlight against an arch rival coached by a man who is considered the devil among the Kentucky legions.
It never happened.
“They really don’t play like freshman,” Louisville senior Kyle Kuric said, shaking his head. “They just have a lot of maturity in the way they play. They carry themselves with confidence. They aren’t shy or afraid of the big moments.”
That’s why they are now 37-2 and will play on Monday night. When the game ended, with the ball in Davis’s hands, he threw it in the rafters screaming “this is my stage” over and over.
Davis giggled like a teenager — which, after all he is — when the final seconds came up in the postgame news conference.
“Did you say that Anthony?” Calipari asked. “Did you really say that?”
Davis nodded sheepishly. But there was no reason to blush. He had proven emphatically that this is his stage, and his teammates had followed along in their supporting roles just as they have all season.
“Can they be beaten?” Pitino asked rhetorically. “Sure, but it’s going to take somebody’s A-plus game.”
Louisville produced a game Saturday night that was a solid A-minus. It attacked the offensive boards. It hung in after falling behind and left Pitino talking about how proud he was of their performance and their season.
And yet the Cardinals’ last lead of the night was 2-0. They had their one moment of hope after Siva’s three-pointer but it passed in what felt like an instant.
There may be another one of those moments waiting for Kentucky on Monday night. Based on what happened here on Saturday, the Wildcats appear ready for their final close-up.
For John Feinstein’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.