NEW ORLEANS — This NCAA tournament was described as Kentucky’s to lose.
When the confetti fell from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome rafters Monday night in the 67-59 championship game victory against Kansas, it not only affirmed that the Wildcats were far and away this season’s best team but that young talent can produce victory.
For all the criticism of coach John Calipari’s one-and-done rotating door of top prospects to the NBA, these Wildcats comprised of three starting freshman and two sophomores can claim they won one before they were done.
The championship was the eighth for Kentucky but its first since 1998, which seems like a lifetime to the ravenous fans who call themselves Big Blue Nation in Lexington, Ky. Calipari’s first NCAA tournament championship clears a professional hurdle in a career littered with controversy involving two vacated Final Four appearances.
The title would not have been won without freshman center Anthony Davis. While he grew eight inches in about a year in high school, nobody’s reputation has grown larger or faster in college basketball this season.
Kansas’ Thomas Robinson declared that Davis wasn’t Superman preceding the title game clash, but Davis certainly looked super human through the season, the tournament and Monday night.
Despite not scoring in the first half and making his first field goal with 5 minutes, 12 seconds remaining, Davis looked every bit the national player of the year, dominating in every sense on the defensive end with nine rebounds and three blocks in the first 20 minutes.
He finished with six points on 1-of-10 shooting, but his 16 rebounds and six blocks were what mattered most.
Kansas could not have felt comfortable in the locker room at the break, down 41-27 even with Kentucky’s best player shooting 0-for-4.
While Davis made life impossibly difficult for Kansas’ offense, his teammates ripped through the Jayhawks’ defense — with help from four Davis assists in the first half — for the impressive lead
It would not have been surprising to find Kentucky fans popping champagne already at halftime.
Kansas had survived this tournament with a series of comebacks, surging back from 13 down against Ohio State on Saturday in the Final Four. But its 18-point first-half deficit on Monday night was just too much against a far superior team.
The Jayhawks made an admirable charge, cutting the Kentucky lead to nine points on a 3-pointer and free throw by Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor with 4:13 to play. As Kentucky struggled to hit shots in the remaining minutes, Kansas closed to within 62-57 with 1:57 remaining, resurfacing memories of Calipari’s Memphis team that collapsed in 2008 to Kansas.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist came up with a potentially game-saving block of a layup by Taylor, and unlike that Memphis team Kentucky converted at the line.
Davis was critical again at the end, forcing Elijah Johnson to walk and give the ball back to Kentucky with less than 20 seconds to play.
Doron Lamb finished with 22 for the Wildcats, while Taylor led the Jayhawks with 19 points .
For Kentucky, the victory appeared to complete a destiny that so many other Calipari-led teams could not achieve.
The Wildcats fell short in the Final Four last season despite freshman Brandin Knight and could not win a title the year prior with standout freshman John Wall.
Calipari praised this season’s team for its unselfishness despite its NBA-ready cast.
That was on display Monday night when the Davis embraced his teammates on the Superdome court.