NEW ORLEANS - This is just a guess, but here goes: Kentucky may be saving its best for last.
It’s in Monday night’s championship game, courtesy of a hard-fought, emotional, but ultimately chilling 69-61 triumph over a game Louisville team that truly gave the Wildcats its best shot, but which also had no real chance when Kentucky needed to assert itself, once and for all.
With 9:11 remaining, the game was tied at 49. And that’s when Kentucky imposed its will at both ends, calmly and efficiently running off an 11-2 run to reestablish control. The rest of the game was maintenance, which is a polite word for superfluous.
“I have a team that has had teams come at them all year,’’ reminded Kentucky coach John Calipari, “and they have responded the way they did today.’’
There wasn’t anything very technical about the way Kentucky took charge. It simply made sure Louisville wasn’t going to score, and then took the ball to the hoop at the other end, interspersing a vital fast-break trailer 3-pointer by invaluable senior Darius Miller - let’s just say it’s a very good thing for Kentucky that this young man got off the bus - with the five dunks and two layups provided by the powerful front court of Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The obvious attention-getter was Davis, the 6-foot-10-inch freshman from Chicago who will enter the NBA draft, in which he will be the guaranteed No. 1 pick, as the national player of the year, not a bad feat for someone who just turned 19 a few weeks ago. He finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks, and some hustle plays that are not usually part of the repertoire for men his size.
“I will say this,’’ gushed Louisville coach Rick Pitino, “Anthony Davis is as good a player as there is.’’
Pitino is, of course, placing him in the context of the college game, but the day may very well come when that judgment will be made of him as a pro.
Consider Davis’s first-half performance. His four baskets consisted of an astonishingly smooth 20-foot drive to the hoop; a righthanded jump hook; a lefthanded jump hook; and an alley-oop dunk in rush-hour traffic. Throw in the rebounds, the blocks, the shots that were never taken, the turnovers caused when he confronted foolish drivers, and a play when he got back on defense in true Bill Russell style to knock away a pass that was going to lead to a Louisville fast-break layup.
It’s a completely unfair package and legitimate comparisons are few. Suggestions include Marcus Camby, freshman Pervis Ellison, Bill Walton, and perhaps even young Arvydas Sabonis. Whomever he most resembles, there is no one remotely comparable in today’s college game.
But he couldn’t win this, or any other, college game by himself. And he has lots of help.
First of all, understand that there was one lead change (4-2, Kentucky) and the one tie (49-49). Kentucky forced the action from the start, and the man who steered the Wildcats in the right direction was freshman point guard Marquis Teague, who made two early drives and a jumper in a lightning 8-0 run that propelled them to a 16-6 lead.
Kentucky is a team with extraordinary balance, and thus different players took turns making necessary plays. It was a performance reminiscent of a jazz combo, with smooth solo following smooth solo following smooth solo, all leading to an exquisite group finish.
Miller may have had the most non-Davis impact, however. The senior holdover from the Billy Gillispie regime had a lot to do with Kentucky moving to a 45-32 lead with 16:14 remaining, and then he threw in that killer three in the deciding run, the shot giving Kentucky a 58-51 lead at 5:07.
“He ran out of two shots before that,’’ Calipari explained. “When he got open right in front of me, I said, ‘Let it go.’ He’s one of the best shooters in college basketball.’’
The stretch run was punctuated by some aggressive moves to the hoop by the 6-9 sophomore Jones and the 6-7 freshman Kidd-Gilchrist, who also distinguished himself by smothering Louisville point guard Peyton Siva. Coach Cal had found the need to motivate Jones earlier in the game, while Kidd-Gilchrist, who can be excessively deferential on offense, simply had to seize his moment.
Kidd-Gilchrist kicked off the aforementioned 11-2 run with a second-chance layup created by Davis, as well as an artful spin-o-rama in the lane capped by a two-handed stuff.
“Tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the Kentucky teams,’’ said Pitino. “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.’’
But what coach wouldn’t love a team whose shot distribution was as follows? 9-8-8-8-7-6-3. That’s a coach’s dream, especially if the players in question make up the most talented collection of players in the land.
The in-state rivalry stuff? No factor. Everyone goes home a winner. “Any time you don’t win a championship, and you’re playing for one, it’s disappointing,’’ acknowledged Pitino. “When you go home with a bronze medal around your neck, it’s not disappointing.’’
As for Kentucky, the Wildcats are 40 minutes away from doing what their talent and dedication dictates they do. A little net-cutting rehearsal may be in order.