NEW ORLEANS — Once the hype surrounding one of the most compelling national semifinals in recent memory gave way to the actual basketball game Saturday night, none of the Bluegrass State message board wars or fights between senior citizens at dialysis centers mattered.
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino was left to devise a plan to upend the sport’s most dominant team. And while the Cardinals utilized an effective recipe — getting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky’s invaluable freshman forward, in early foul trouble and relentlessly attacking the offensive glass — they fell short, losing 69-61 in what clearly was a house divided at the Superdome.
The score was almost identical to Kentucky’s 69-62 victory over Louisville in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 31. Only this time, Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis finished the game in emphatic fashion, throwing the ball in the air and yelling “this is my stage!” after the final buzzer.
Davis’s numbers backed up that assertion, as he finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. He made 7 of 8 field goal attempts and became the first player since Danny Manning in 1988 to have at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks in a Final Four game.
“He did what he has done all year,” said Kentucky Coach John Calipari, who said Davis was emphatically calling for the ball late in the game. “His teammates make him better. He makes his teammates better.”
It was an emotional ending after a week’s worth of buildup to a matchup between two programs and two coaches that aren’t particularly fond of each other.
In eight seasons at Kentucky, Pitino had resuscitated the program and assembled one of the most talented teams in recent history, the 1995-96 squad that earned Pitino his only national championship. Sixteen years after Kentucky beat a Calipari-led Massachusetts team in the national semifinals, the roles of the two coaches were reversed Saturday night.
In his third season with the Wildcats, it was Calipari directing the overwhelming favorite against the underdog in Pitino, who spent the week lobbing soft, subtle jabs Calipari’s way. Because of the talent Calipari has collected and because he faced Pitino and in-state nemesis Louisville, a Kentucky loss would have resonated long into the remainder of Calipari’s career.
Instead, he has the top-ranked Wildcats where they were expected to be all season, making their first national title game appearance since they last won the championship in 1998.
After the game, Pitino told Calipari: “I’ll be pulling for you. I’d love to see you bring [the national title] home to the state.”
The Wildcats shot 57.1 percent, but Louisville attempted 20 more field goals in the game because of the Cardinals’ 19-6 edge on the offensive boards.
“We knew we were going to play like starving dogs on the glass,” Pitino said.
Nine minutes into the second half, Chane Behanan missed a short jumper, but Wayne Blackshear caught the rebound and threw down a dunk that sliced Louisville’s deficit to four points.
Then, with 9 minutes 37 seconds remaining, Peyton Siva sank a three-pointer from the top of the circle to tie the score at 49 and rouse the legions of red-clad Louisville fans. But then the Cardinals went more than six minutes without a field goal, and the Wildcats achieved some separation thanks in part to Darius Miller, a rare senior on a team of elite underclassmen who finished with 13 points, including a three-pointer that put the Wildcats up seven with 5:04 to go.
Early in the game, it looked like the Wildcats could cruise. The Cardinals ranked first nationally in defensive efficiency and third in field goal percentage defense. But after scoring no less than 81 points in four tournament games, the Wildcats remained hot offensively in the first half, shooting 60 percent. From inside the three-point arc, the Wildcats made 14 of 20 shots in the half.
Kentucky scored four straight baskets — two by Marquis Teague, two by Doron Lamb — inside 15 feet in the game’s early moments. The Wildcats made eight of their first 11 baskets, while the Cardinals missed eight of their first 11 shots.
The only early issue for the Wildcats was that Kidd-Gilchrist, in many ways the soul of the team, picked up two fouls in the game’s first seven minutes. Without him on the floor much of the half, the Wildcats could not build on a 10-point advantage, nor could they deny Louisville offensive rebounds.
What the Wildcats lack in depth, though, they make up for in star power. They attacked Louisville’s 2-3 matchup zone with hard drives to the basket, leading to layups or dunks. At one point, Calipari yelled at his bench, “Drive the ball!”
And Louisville’s early lack of scoring meant the Cardinals had limited opportunities to set up their press, which had been instrumental in forcing turnovers and creating offense, particularly in the postseason. The pressure finally proved effective late in the half, when the highly energized Russ Smith knocked the ball from Lamb’s hands and raced in for a layup.