NEW ORLEANS - There was an omigod moment when a pair of Thomas Robinson free throws with 1:37 remaining turned what had once been an impregnable Kentucky lead to 5.
There wasn’t a person in the building who didn’t know that four years ago a Bill Self-coached Kansas team had stolen a national championship from a John Calipari-coached Memphis team with a fairy tale comeback.
But there was no repeat history, and now John Calipari and the Big Blue nation have their cherished national championship. Kentucky hung on by forcing mistakes and making enough free throws. The Wildcats defeated Kansas by a 67-59 score.
The One-And-Done Kids, led by the astonishing Anthony Davis, did get it done.
Davis was the tourney MVP, nailing it down in a spectacular performance in which he dominated the game-deciding first half without scoring a single point. He did that with a 9-rebound, 4-assist, 3-(official)-block show that also included a hefty dose of altered shots and “Maybe-this-isn’t-such-a-good-idea’’ discouragement of shots never taken.
“He is a beautiful basketball player,’’ said an admiring Bill Walton, who knows a little about dominating NCAA championship games. “And he plays to win. He doesn’t worry about stats.’’
Davis finished with 6 points (on very uncharacteristic 1-for-10 shooting), 16 rebounds, 5 assists and 6 blocks, and the game came to a fitting ceremonial conclusion when he hauled in an Elijah Johnson air-balled 3-pointer for rebound No. 16 on the final Jayhawks possession with 11 seconds left.
Now while the heralded freshmen trio of Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague all played very big roles in this scenario, let the record show there might very well have been a different outcome if the Wildcats had been forced to subtract the contribution of an honest-to-God sophomore geezer named Doron Lamb.
The young man from Queens stepped up to the plate in the biggest game of his career by scoring a game-high 22, punctuated by three 3-pointers. Isn’t it heartening to know that even Kentucky needs occasional help from a hardened two-year veteran of the collegiate hoop wars?
Of course, skeptics will smirk that all Lamb was doing was constructing his own résumé tape for the NBA. And you know that Vegas is laying an over/under on how many days it will take for the NCAA to put up a “tournament vacated’’ sign on the Lexington campus, given the track record of its coach. We live in such a cynical world, do we not?
But must we go there today? How about taking this Kentucky achievement at face value? Why can’t we just marvel at what we have seen from this really amazing group that Coach Cal has assembled for our basketball viewing pleasure?
Let’s review the 20 minutes. What Kentucky did in a 13 1/2-minute stretch of the first half was invite comparison to all the great teams in NCAA Tournament history. They changed a 7-7 game into a 39-21 affair with a smothering defense, great rebounding, and a fast-break sensibility that must have had the likes of The Cooz and Tom Heinsohn reaching for the tissue box.
For this was classic Celtics basketball, anchored and initiated by a young man who really does not have a straight stylistic ancestor. People want to compare the 6-foot-10-inch Davis to the young Marcus Camby. Nope, that’s not it. Patrick Ewing? Uh-uh. He’s neither of these gentlemen, and he’s not Walton and no matter what Bob Knight says he’s not Bill Russell, either. He is his own unique package of grace, aggression, and intelligence. Wherever his young teammates land, they might as well know now they may never again be this lucky. Playing with Anthony Davis is a privilege, and they’d better appreciate it.
With Davis guarding the rim and hauling down rebound after rebound, Kentucky kept going end to end, scoring 13 of their first 23 via the fast-break route. And then things got sick when Teague, Lamb, and Darius Miller hit successive threes. Understand this: if Kentucky is going to make threes, it’s just not fair. There is no chance to beat the Wildcats if they are making shots.
What was really chilling about the Kentucky fast-break attack, meanwhile, was its efficiency. They were sloppy in transition execution against Louisville in the semis. Monday night they were successful on 8 of 9 fast-break attempts in the first half, and none of them came from forced turnovers. It was a matter of getting it off the glass (once from a missed free throw) and heading the other way at warp speed. And they can all run.
The second half was essentially marking time, with Kansas making little dents into the lead and the Cats pulling it back out, peaking at 16 (46-30) with 14:48 left and again stretching it to 15 (54-39) on a Davis left corner jumper with 5:13 remaining.
Give the Jayhawks credit. They have been a very good comeback team throughout the tournament, and they launched a final push behind the skill and spirit of point guard Tyshawn Taylor. But to duplicate what had happened four years ago, they needed a few more things to go right for them and a few more things to go wrong for Kentucky.
They also needed Davis to be somewhere other than on the court, for it was the big kid who ended their hopes when he came rushing out on Johnson as he was launching a left corner three, intimidating the lad into an up-and-down violation with 23.5 seconds left and the Jayhawks down, 65-59.
And that’s it. Poof! Anthony Davis has come and gone from the college world. In a way, it may never be the same watching him again. He’ll get older and even smarter, but sooner or later he’ll get hurt and then he’ll become jaded and he just won’t be as much fun as he was Monday night, when he was an exuberant 19-year-old playing for buddies and that adoring Big Blue Nation.
If you missed all this, find yourself a tape of that first half. If Bill Walton is that impressed, you will be, too.