It didn't have anything to do with the score. Kentucky owned a 20-point lead and was well on its way to an 82-70 victory Sunday at the Georgia Dome that earned the Wildcats their 15th Final Four appearance.
It had everything to do with what was going on under the basket. Kentucky's Anthony Davis, the best player in college basketball, was grimacing in pain and holding his left knee after getting fouled by Baylor's Perry Jones III.
The injury doesn't appear to be serious. Davis returned to the game 75 seconds later, and though he moved gingerly for the next few minutes, he strengthened as the game wore on and finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks.
"[My] knee is doing fine," Davis said. "I just bumped knees with Perry Jones, and it started hurting real bad. But I knew my team needed me to play. I wasn't going to sit out, especially with a trip to the Final Four [at stake]. All of us want to go to the Final Four. I knew I needed to come in the game and help my team out, so I decided to come in."
[CatsIllustrated.com: More Kentucky coverage ]
But the Davis incident – and much of what followed – offered Kentucky a stark reminder that it can't take anything for granted as it heads into Saturday's semifinal battle royal against heated-rival Louisville in New Orleans.
For much of Sunday's game, Kentucky (36-2) looked like the no-doubt-about-it best team in the country.
Davis and teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were playing like the potential first and second overall picks in the upcoming NBA draft as Kentucky raced to a 20-point halftime advantage. Kidd-Gilchrist, the regional's most outstanding player, scored 17 points of his 19 total points during a first-half stretch that lasted just more than 10 minutes.
"I've never played better than that," Kidd-Gilchrist said with a wide smile. "I was in a zone. I think I was in a zone. I was just having fun out there. That's it."
Two days after allowing 90 points in a regional semifinal victory over Indiana, Kentucky's resurgent defense flustered Baylor (30-8) into more turnovers (nine) than baskets (eight) in the first half. After trailing 10-5 in the opening minutes, Kentucky went on a 16-0 run and never looked back.
[ Recap: Kentucky rips Baylor to reach Final Four ]
The Wildcats led 44-24 with 18:38 remaining when Davis drove to the basket and bumped knees with Jones. Davis fell awkwardly to the floor and hurt his left knee, but he ended up playing 14 minutes in the second half.
"Every time I stopped playing, it started getting tight on me," Davis said, "so I decided to keep it moving and keep playing."
Though Davis' return left the partisan crowd breathing a huge sigh of relief, Kentucky didn't play championship-caliber basketball the rest of the day.
Kentucky shot 67.6 percent (23-of-34) from the line in the second half and didn't take full advantage of Baylor's foul problems. After compiling 11 assists and only three turnovers in that brilliant first half, Kentucky had 10 turnovers and four assists the rest of the way. There was even confusion over the foul totals for each Kentucky player, which created a tenuous situation when Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were saddled with four fouls each midway through the second half.
"I told them at halftime [Baylor was] going to make a run," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "You know they're going to make a run, and then we'll make a run. They'll make a run, we'll make a run, and the game will be over. Just don't panic. Just play.
"This team hasn't been rattled all year. We've had teams come at us and play absolutely out of our minds, but to do it for 40 minutes is a little tougher."
[ The Dagger: Kentucky's muted celebration ]
Although the lead never dipped below 10 points, the Wildcats realize they can't afford to make the same mistakes again. After all, the unbelievable pressure surrounding this team just got even more intense in the past 24 hours.
Kentucky already faced the championship-or-bust expectations that come when one school signs three of the nation's top five prospects in a single class (Davis was second, Kidd-Gilchrist third and freshman guard Marquis Teague fifth in the Rivals.com 2011 recruiting rankings). A semifinal showdown with Louisville puts an even greater burden on their shoulders.
If the Wildcats slip up Saturday, one of the most talent-laden lineups in recent college basketball history will have the agony of sitting home and watching its archrival play for the national title. The Kentucky-Louisville showdown will mark the first time in-state rivals have faced off in the Final Four since Cincinnati beat Ohio State in back-to-back championship games in 1961 and '62.
"We know it's going to be crazy," senior swingman Darius Miller said. "We already know that. It's crazy for a regular-season game, [let alone] the Final Four. We know how it's going to be."
Then he corrected himself.
"I can't really imagine how it's going to be," Miller said. "I guess it's something we're just going to have to see."
The Wildcats understand the sky-high expectations. In fact, they share them.
"Our goal is to win it all,'' Teague said. "To get to the Final Four, that's great. But if we were to lose the next game, we wouldn't be happy that we got to the Final Four. We want to win it all."
So is it fair to say that anything short of a national championship constitutes failure for this team?
"Yeah, definitely," Miller replied.
That might explain Kentucky's relatively subdued reaction to its regional title.
Kidd-Gilchrist pumped his fist in the air a few times after exchanging handshakes with Baylor's players. A few players danced on the podium. When the Kentucky fans in the crowd began taking pictures of the postgame celebration, the Wildcats did some mugging for the cameras. But there certainly wasn't the type of celebration you see from most teams that have just advanced to the Final Four. They know there's more work ahead.
"There's a swagger to this team, I think," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "We're not done yet."
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