There was no question that this was a heavyweight fight. From the week of cartoonish media hype of the rivalry between the players and the dissection of the genuine dislike between Rick Pitino and John Calipari, to the UK mascot coming out in trunks, gloves and a robe, the message was clear. This was going to be a fight between two brawlers. The only question to be answered was whether it would be more Ali-Frazier or Tyson-McNeely. Credit the Louisville Cardinals too because they made it interesting through that strange little bit of whatever it is they do to keep games close.
And that’s exactly what the Cards did. Everytime you felt like Kentucky was going to pull away, the Cards would claw back. They’d take a charge or force a turnover. It was never like the Cats were playing poorly. It was just Louisville had that infrared voodoo magic working. But while Louisville was able to keep Kentucky on the ropes for the first 37 minutes of the game, National Player of the Year Anthony Davis delivered the final knockout punch with a putback dunk that put the Cats ahead by seven points with only a minute to play. Davis’ dunk gave the Cats an insurmountable final minute lead, but it also served as something of a one-play summary of where these two teams have been this year, where they were Saturday night and why Kentucky walked away with a win.
When the two teams faced at Rupp Arena earlier this season, Kentucky manhandled Louisville on the glass, out-rebounding the Cards, 49-28. Saturday, the Cards fought to stay in the game with a UK team that was turning the awful Louisville shooting into transition buckets and did it in the most simple way. They hit the glass. Louisville won the battle of the glass, 37-32, and pulled down an astounding 16 offensive rebounds – the only reason a team that shot 34% from the field kept battling with a team shooting 57%. But when the game was still there for the taking, perseverance, fundamentals and talent came calling again with a series of critical defensive stops, rebounds and dunks. And Davis’ killer putback was the exclamation point on them all.
The freshman forward was Kentucky’s brightest star, finishing with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks – one short of the Final Four record – in his first national semifinal game. Senior Darius Miller scored 13 off the bench, including a clutch three-pointer that put Kentucky ahead by seven with five minutes remaining. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones, whose stat lines weren’t anything that would jump out and impress you, also found their stride late by continuously attacking the rim, no matter how many charges Doug Shows called.
And when it was all said and done, the Cats stood alone as the state’s top team and only one game away from the prize they’ve chased from day one. This was never about the Final Four and it was never about Louisville. It was about another step in the journey to a national championship. And as Anthony Davis said afterward, “This is my stage!”
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Bill Keightley Report : Never to be forgotten.
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