NEW ORLEANS - Kentucky and John Calipari silenced legions of critics on Monday night, winning the NCAA championship with a 67-59 victory over Kansas.
The Jayhawks used their customary lockdown defence to slice into an 18-point Wildcats advantage, but could not come all the way back.
The most talented team in college basketball all season, but as young a group as they come with three freshmen starters, the Wildcats rose to the occasion early and survived late, bringing Big Blue its first national title since 1998.
NBA all-star-in-waiting Anthony Davis did not score in the first half of his final collegiate contest, yet was the best player on the floor, collecting nine rebounds, three blocks and four assists, helping to hold the Jayhawks to 33% shooting.
Davis dominated the first half without hitting a shot and when’s the last time that has happened?
“I told my team, you score the ball, I’ll just rebound,” Davis said.
There was thunder and lightning outside, but it was inside the Superdome, with 70,913 on hand, where the atmosphere was truly electric.
With Terrence Jones locking down player of the year runner-up Thomas Robinson and with the Wildcats patiently running Calipari’s offensive sets to great effectiveness, the club raced out to a double-digit lead that eventually approached 20 points.
Doron Lamb sparked the Wildcats with 22 points, while Davis finished with 16 rebounds, six points, six blocks and five assists, becoming only the fourth freshman to win the tournament’s most outstanding player award.
“This team deserves all the accolades that they’ve been getting,” Calipari said.
“I wanted them to show that they were not just a talented team. That they were a defensive team who could share the ball.”
Jones was a force, bodying up and using his length to bother Robinson who was out of sorts and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist also dominated defensively at times.
Jones finished with nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal, Robinson 18 points and 17 rebounds after finding his game late.
The lead was 14 at the half, but it could have been more, just like how Kansas should have been trailing by a bigger margin in the semifinals to Ohio State.
They came back to win that one, but Kentucky wasn’t about to blow this chance.
Kansas had made a habit of tightening the screws in the second half – opponents were only hitting a quarter of their second half attempts in the tourney and Kentucky was limited to 26.9% accuracy in the closing 20 minutes.
The problem for the Jayhawks was that while the team was keeping Kentucky’s offence in check, its own offence was sputtering along in the mid thirties, percentage-wise.
But there is no quit in Bill Self’s group and after big centre Jeff Withey — who was excellent shutting down Davis’ offence — punched out a Davis shot and Taylor scored at the other end and hit his free throw to pull Kansas within nine, getting the Kansas backers up and amped. Kansas eventually cut it to five, conjuring up memories of the 2008 final, where Calipari’s Memphis Tigers had coughed up a nine-point lead in the final two minutes against Self’s Kansas squad.
This time, Calipari’s side did enough to give him his long-awaited championship.
For Calipari, the win gave him the only thing missing from his stellar resume. A championship at last, in his fourth trip to the Final Four.
Some may hate his recruiting methods, but the man attracts talent and never has he had a bunch as good as these Wildcats.
They were not to be denied.
“They shared, they like each other and they defend. And they’re playing with pros,” Self said when it was all over.
Nobody can deny Calipari and his staff their due now.