NEW ORLEANS - They lost one game to Indiana on a last-second basket in December, and they lost another in the Southeastern Conference tournament to Vanderbilt.
Other than that, the University of Kentucky did few things wrong in a magical season for coach John Calipari, who had brought three other teams to the Final Four, only to come up empty.
Not this time. Not for Kentucky (38-2), which was seeking its first national championship in 14 years - an extraordinary drought for the hoop-crazed legions in Lexington.
And not for Calipari, who finally won his first national title in a coaching odyssey that began two decades ago at the University of Massachusetts.
All of that came together Monday night at the Superdome as the uber-talented Wildcats, with another fabulous freshman class, matched their talent with accomplishment in rolling to a 67-59 win over Kansas.
“This is not about me, this is about the 13 players, the big blue nation,’’ said Calipari. “I don’t know of any team that sacrificed for each other like this team.’’
Super freshman Anthony Davis had just 6 points on 1-of-10 shooting, but he dominated inside with 16 rebounds and six blocked shots. He also had five assists and three steals. Kentucky had 11 blocked shots, impressive for an NCAA Tournament championship game.
“It’s not me, it’s these guys behind me,’’ said Davis, who was only the fourth freshman to be named the Most Outstanding Player. “The whole game I was struggling offensively, I told them you all score the ball, I will just defend and grab rebounds.’’
The rest of the Wildcats more than did their share. Guard Doron Lamb led all scorers with 22 points, and Marquis Teague (14 points) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11 points), two more precocious freshmen, provided the offensive spark through a first half in which Kentucky led by 18 points before settling for a 41-27 halftime lead.
“How about that,’’ said Calipari with a smile and a sigh after he had watched the final seconds tick down and hugged longtime assistant coach John Robic, who has been with him since his days at UMass in 1988-89, when the Minutemen posted a 10-18 season, the first and only losing season in Calipari’s collegiate head coaching career.
For the Jayhawks (32-7), it was the end of a run that featured comebacks throughout the NCAA Tournament against increasingly difficult odds.
This time, coach Bill Self’s team didn’t have enough answers for Kentucky, but forced the Wildcats to hang on in a tense final six minutes.
The Jayhawks, who trailed Ohio State by 13 points in Saturday night’s 64-62 Final Four victory, had comeback on their minds.
Leading by 16 points early in the second half, the Wildcats got sloppy, committing six turnovers in the first six minutes, and had their lead cut to 10 midway through the second half.
Would there be another Kansas comeback? Would there be a Kentucky meltdown?
No and No. The Wildcats, after scoring only 9 points in the first 11 minutes of the second half, scored 6 points in 38 seconds and increased their margin to 16.
Kansas came back again as Tyshawn Taylor finished a 3-point play at the 4:17 mark, trimming the Jayhawks’ deficit to single digits (59-50) for the first time since midway through the first half.
When Thomas Robinson (6-of-17 shooting, 18 points, 17 rebounds) made a pair of free throws with 3:52 left, the lead was down to 7 and visions of a Memphis meltdown by a Calipari-coached team to Kansas in the 2008 title game started creeping in.
It got more tense for the Wildcat faithful when freshman Kidd-Gilchrist fouled Robinson with 1:37 left. Robinson hit the free throws and the lead was down to 5 at 62-57.
With 1:11 left, Davis was fouled, but made only one of two shots to leave Kentucky up, 63-57.
But with 54 seconds left, the Jayhawks turned the ball over and the fouls started. Teague made a pair of foul shots and the lead was back to 8.
Taylor threw in a floater and the lead was cut to 6 with 39 seconds left as Kansas used its last timeout.
Teague went back to the foul line with 35 seconds left and missed the first of a one-and-one, but the Jayhawks turned the ball over again, and the Wildcats survived to win their eighth national championship.
Kansas was regarded as merely the final prop in Kentucky’s run to the title.
The teams met once this season - in November in New York, in which Kentucky broke from a 28-28 halftime tie to record a 75-65 victory. Five Kentucky players were in double figures.
That kind of balance - with potential freshmen lottery picks in Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist as the cornerstones - was what Calipari preached all season and reiterated Monday night.
The first five-minute segment of the game was a confrontation between teams trying to establish their turf.
Kentucky clearly wanted to run and Kansas - realizing the consequences of getting into a sprint with Kentucky and its stable of thoroughbreds - tried to slow the pace.
Kentucky jumped to a 17-9 lead seven minutes into the game.
Kansas did not panic, but the Jayhawks were clearly in the danger zone.
Leading the way for Kentucky were Teague and Kidd-Gilchrist, who scored 13 of the Wildcats’ first 23 points as Kentucky expanded its lead to 9 points halfway through the first half.
The problem for Kansas was that Davis was controlling the backboards and swatting away shots. One block ended with Teague knocking down a 3-point shot, which increased the Wildcats’ lead to 31-19.
Self called a timeout to settle his team.
The Jayhawks needed a scoring surge in the first half but they didn’t really get it until they fell behind by 18 points. They cut the Kentucky lead to 14 (41-27) at the end of the first half.
The numbers on the stat sheet at the half were as grim as those on the scoreboard for the Jayhawks.
Kentucky, led by Lamb’s 12 points and Kidd-Gilchrist’s 11, outrebounded (25-14) and outshot (53.3 percent to 33 percent) Kansas.
And while Davis did not score, he grabbed 9 rebounds, blocked 3 shots, and handed out 4 assists.Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.