NEW ORLEANS – College basketball's best team during the 2011-12 season is also its national champion. And yes, that's actually saying something, because it doesn't happen very often.
Set up as a showdown between two of college basketball most storied programs, this title game was more of a coronation for Kentucky – for 38 minutes anyway. Holding a double-digit lead for most of the contest, Kentucky nearly fell victim to yet another Kansas comeback. The Jayhawks, down by as many as 18, rallied to within five with 1:37 to go.
At that moment, there was little doubt Kentucky head coach John Calipari, who'd never won a national championship, started having flashbacks to the 2008 title game when his Memphis team blew a nine-point lead with less than three minutes to go against … Kansas.
There would be no choke this time, however. Gilchrist blocked a Tyshawn Taylor shot that would have made it a one-possession game, then the Wildcats made four free throws in the closing minutes to hang on for a 67-59 victory.
For just the second time in 10 years, the No. 1 overall seed won it all. Kansas fans might not agree, but the best team of 2012 stood on the stage celebrating in front of 70,913 inside the Superdome.
"This is not about me, this is about these 13 players," Calipari said. "This is about the Big Blue Nation. But I don't know of any team that has sacrificed for each other like this team and they deserve this moment, they really do."
How good is this Wildcats team? They won four of six games in this year's tournament by at least 12 points and none was closer than eight. Monday night, they built that 18-point first-half lead without Anthony Davis, the AP player of the year, scoring a single point.
That should (but won't) silence the critics who claim Kentucky wins on individual talent alone – that it somehow has an unfair advantage because of Calipari's unapologetic recruitment of the so-called one-and-doners. Sure the Wildcats boast the most talent of any roster in the country – Davis and fellow freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could potentially go 1-2 in this June's NBA draft – but as they showed Monday night, they win as a team.
At one point, Kansas coach Bill Self squatted on the sidelines of the raised court inside the Superdome and shook his head. What else could he do? Break it down however you want, but sometimes the other team is just better.
"They're good," Self said. "The kids tried really hard. I'm so proud of them. They represented their school and themselves in such a first-class manner, but tonight we just weren't the better team. They were obviously the better team."
[ Dan Wetzel: John Calipari built program that's destined for more ]
Knowing he wasn't on his offensive game, Davis made his impact in other ways, grabbing 16 rebounds, blocking six shots, dishing out five assists and snagging three steals. In one sequence early in the first half, Davis stole an attempted alley-oop, pushed the ball up the court where Gilchrist got a put-back jam, then blocked a shot that led to another fast-break bucket.
Despite scoring just six points in the title game, Davis was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
"It's not hard to take a backseat, especially when playing with a great group of guys," Davis said. "I knew I was struggling. So I told them, 'I'm going to defend and rebound, you all make the points.' That's what they did tonight."
Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague picked up the offensive slack with 22 and 14 points, respectively.
"We were trying to get out of this gym alive,” Calipari said. “But you’ve got to give Kansas credit, they didn’t stop like they have all this tournament. They played well, but I’m so proud of these young men."
More NCAA tournament coverage on the Yahoo! network:
• Pat Forde: Stars playing without ego help Kentucky set a new standard for dominance
• Video: Kentucky fans party in New Orleans | Riots in Kentucky
• Kansas left shattered after comeback bid falls short | Photos
• Video: The Fray's dreadful national anthem performance | The Fray on Y! Music
- John Calipari