NEW ORLEANS – Billed as the game Kentucky couldn't lose, it didn't, sending home intrastate rival Louisville 69-61 to advance to Monday's title game when the Wildcats will face Kansas for the 2012 NCAA men's basketball national championship.
Playing in front of a decidedly pro-Kentucky crowd inside the Superdome, Louisville wasn't given much of a chance. Kentucky was pegged as the tournament's No. 1 overall seed and to this point had rolled through its first four games, winning by double figures each time.
That's how it is when you have Anthony Davis, the AP player of the year, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a pair of freshmen who will undoubtedly be lottery picks in June's NBA draft. Knowing these two aren't long for Lexington, the Wildcats are built to win now, and that's what the entire state of Kentucky – the blue part, anyway – expects: an eighth national championship.
Now, they're just one win away from completing that mission.
"We're a game closer to our dream and our goals," said Davis. "We have to come out Monday night and perform. We can't come out like today's game. We have to come out with a lot of energy."
Davis, the likely No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, delivered a nearly flawless performance: 7-for-8 from the field, 18 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks. In his first game on a truly grand stage – 73,361 were packed from floor to ceiling inside the Superdome, millions more watching at home – he played with the poise of a fifth-year senior, not a baby-faced 19-year-old.
"This is my stage!" Davis screamed as the clock ticked to zero. "This is my stage!"
While Kentucky controlled the entire game, trailing only once at 2-0, Louisville never went away. Every time the Wildcats made a run, the Cardinals responded with one of their own. Several times Kentucky appeared on the cusp of breaking the game open, but it never happened. Instead, it was a well-played chess match with two of the game's best and most polarizing coaches – Kentucky's John Calipari and Louisville's Rick Pitino – calling the shots.
With just over nine minutes to go, Louisville's Peyton Siva drained a three-pointer to tie the game at 49. That brought the Louisville faithful to their feet, signaling the battle of Kentucky was most definitely on.
That, however, would be the high-water mark for the Cardinals, who simply didn't have the firepower to hang with Kentucky. Moments later Kidd-Gilchrist laid one in, then slammed another one home. And when Darius Miller, one of only two seniors on the Kentucky roster, drained a 3-pointer with just over five minutes left, it was over.
Davis put the cherry on the victory when he slammed home an alley-oop from Kidd-Gilchrist to make it 65-58 with under a minute to go, and a mini celebration ensued.
Kentucky was going back to the national title game for the first time since 1998, and Calipari will take another shot at winning his first championship.
"You've got to give Louisville credit, they offensive rebounded better than any team we've played this year," Calipari said afterward. "They never stopped playing; they got up with our bodies, created turnovers and gave themselves a chance to win.
"And then I had my big man here [Davis] saying, 'Cal, throw me the ball. Tell them to throw me the ball. He did great."
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