NEW ORLEANS - All week long, Louisville coach Rick Pitino had played the underdog role as well as he could.
Pitino, like everyone else at the Superdome Saturday night, knew that Kentucky had the better team, probably the best in the Final Four.
Kentucky coach John Calipari listened to the chatter in the buildup to what was touted as the most important game in the history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
But Calipari knew what Pitino knew - he had the better team. And in a workmanlike manner, the Wildcats moved into Monday night’s championship game against Kansas, 64-62 winners of the late game over Ohio State. And he had the player of the year in 6-foot-10-inch Anthony Davis.
Kentucky’s 69-61 victory showed many aspects of a season that has had few down moments for a team that has compiled a 37-2 record.
What it showed the most was Kentucky’s poise under pressure as Louisville hung around until the final minutes.
After Kentucky took a 7-point halftime lead and built it to 13 early in the second half, the Cardinals clawed their way back, tying it with nine minutes left and forcing Kentucky to answer several late runs.
The Wildcats, led by Davis (18 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 5 blocks), held off a final Louisville surge in the closing seconds.
“It meant a lot,’’ said Davis, who played like the megastar that he is down the stretch. “Now we are a lot closer to our goal of winning the national championship.’’
Calipari, who has been to the Final Four with three programs, is one win away from his first national title.
“I’m proud of our guys, we hung in there, took a lot of shots,’’ said Calipari.
Pitino, whose team rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half to make it interesting at the end, did not disagree with Calipari’s assessment
“I will say this, that Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is,’’ said Pitino. “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.
“Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky, which doesn’t happen very often, to bring home that trophy to the state.’’
Kentucky came into the game regarded as the better team, but was facing more pressure - especially against rival Louisville.
The Wildcats’ history is well documented. No team has played in or won more tournament games than the Wildcats, and only UCLA (11) has more national championships than Kentucky’s seven.
This is the Wildcats’ 15th Final Four, but the last Kentucky national title was in 1996, which included a win by a Wildcat team coached by Pitino against a University of Massachusetts team coached by Calipari.
This season’s Kentucky squad had great ambitions from the start, dominated by star freshmen and future NBA lottery picks and coached by Calipari, who is on a quest for the respect that winning his first national championship would bring. The Wildcats were ranked No. 2 in the preseason (behind North Carolina), and no worse than No. 3 all season - they were No. 1 the last two months.
The win over Louisville was dominated by Davis, but sophomore guard Doron Lamb (10 points) and senior guard Darius Miller (13 points) made key contributions.
The victory also left the Wildcats emotionally spent, as evidenced by Davis dribbling out the final seconds and throwing the ball in the air at the buzzer.
“We fought all game,’’ said Davis. “We had a great team.’’
Miller said the buildup to the game had little effect.
“To us, it was the next game,’’ said Miller. “Whether we were playing Louisville, Texas or Georgetown, we were going to try and come out and play with the same intensity. It’s just the next game. Our main goal is win a championship, not beat a certain team.’’
Kentucky wasted little time in establishing its turf, and did it with Davis. The freshman from Chicago, who is almost certainly playing his last games as a collegian, showed a few of his lottery-pick moves with a pair of baskets that helped Kentucky boost its lead to 10 early.
Louisville was being limited to one shot and was turning the ball over as much as it was converting baskets.
The Cardinals have been resilient all season and especially throughout the NCAA Tournament - they came from double digits behind to beat Florida in the West Regional final - and at the end of the first half they did it again, cutting a 10-point Kentucky lead to 3 in the final minutes before intermission.
The only problem was that Kentucky is so quick and so talented that it doubled its lead in a matter of seconds and closed the half with a 35-28 lead.
Still, with only a 7-point halftime deficit, the game was hardly out of reach if Louisville (30-10) could put together a surge and find a way to contain Davis.
The Cardinals couldn’t in the first few minutes of the second half. And when a basket by Davis and a steal and a dunk by Miller came in a quick spurt, Kentucky had its biggest lead at 11.
Once again Louisville refused to concede anything and at the 11:23 mark the Cardinals had cut the deficit to 46-42, which caused Calipari to call a timeout to settle his team.
It took awhile, and when Louisville hit a 3-point shot from above the key at the 9:02 mark, Louisville had tied the game (49-49) for the first time since the opening minute.
“I feel the rest of the way we were going to win,’’ said Cardinals guard Chris Smith. “Everybody thought we were going to win because we had confidence.’’
So did Kentucky, and once again the Wildcats had an answer as freshman star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist put in a pair of baskets, and Terrence Jones threw in a dunk in a 11-2 spurt that put the game away.
“We have one more basketball game to play and that’s Monday,’’ said Calipari, quickly getting back to the business at hand. “We have one more. We’re playing one more basketball game.’’
But with the best team.