NEW ORLEANS — Mere hours before Doron Lamb helped shoot Kentucky to its first national championship in 14 years on Monday night, John Calipari had an inkling the sophomore guard was due for a big game.
Lamb shot so consistently in shootaround earlier in the day that Calipari told the team he expected 25 points from the New York native.
Even though Lamb fell a few points short of his coach's prediction, he didn't give anyone in royal blue reason to complain. Lamb sank a trio of 3-pointers and scored a game-high 22 points, helping Kentucky build a comfortable enough second-half lead to hold off a late charge from Kansas and secure a 67-59 victory.
"Like coach said, I had a great shoot-around," Lamb said. "He told me I'd have 25 today, but I had 22. It feels great. My sophomore year, a championship. My freshman year, a Final Four. Can't get no better than that."
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If the defensive prowess of this Kentucky team was the biggest attribute that separated it from Calipari's past two squads, then perimeter shooting is another area in which the Wildcats were superior to their predecessors. A Kentucky team with five first-round picks suffered a 2010 Elite Eight loss to West Virginia as a result of shooting 4 of 32 from behind the arc, but this year's Wildcats were far less susceptible to teams packing the paint and daring them to hit from the perimeter.
The biggest reason for that is the presence of Lamb, a shooter with the courage and the smooth stroke to make opposing teams pay for leaving him free in an effort to defend the paint. Lamb shot 46.5 percent from behind the arc this season and sank 12 of his 23 threes in the NCAA tournament.
"He is as good when his motor is moving as any guard in the country," Calipari said. "He shoots it. He makes free throws. He's good with the ball. He's crafty. After his shoot-aroundtoday, I knew he'd have a big game."
Lamb had 12 first-half points, played solid defense and ran the point when Marquis Teague struggled for a stretch of the second half, but his biggest contribution were a pair of back-to-back threes that squelched a Kansas run.
The first was a corner three off an unselfish feed from Teague that extended Kentucky's lead to 51-38 with 10:37 to go. Thirty-three seconds later, Lamb struck again, burying a right-wing 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 16 again.
"We have the ball, come up empty, then he sticks two in a row, gives them breathing room," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "That was huge. That was a huge play."
The last time a Calipari team faced Self's Jayhawks in the national title game, Memphis squandered a nine-point lead in the final 2:12 of regulation in part as a result of four crucial botched free throws. Lamb helped make sure the same fate would not befall this Kentucky team, sinking the game-sealing free throws with 17 seconds left to provide the final margin.
Once the final buzzer sounded and Lamb donned a gray national championship t-shirt and cap, he flashed a megawatt smile and did a shimmying dance in the middle of a mob of his teammates. Then he was the first of the Kentucky players to climb a blue ladder and snip a piece of the net as blue-clad fans roared in the background.
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It was a fitting reward for a hard-working player sometimes overlooked amid the flashier stars on Kentucky's high-powered roster.
"I don't care who gets the spotlight," Lamb said. "I just go out there, play hard and try to help my team win."
Lamb did just that Monday night. As a result, the spotlight is now his.
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