NEW ORLEANS – Kentucky completed one of the more dominating NCAA Tournament runs in the proud program’s history Monday night by beating Kansas, 67-59, to claim its eighth national championship and Coach John Calipari’s first.
“This is not about me,” Calipari told a national television audience upon accepting the championship trophy with his team in the Superdome. “This is about these 13 players. This is about the Big Blue Nation. I don’t know of any team that has sacrificed for each other like this team, and they deserve this moment. They really do.”
Ironically, Anthony Davis, who became only the fourth freshman voted the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, proved scoring was incidental to championship play. He didn’t make a basket until only 5:12 remained.
But Davis pulled down 16 rebounds, giving him 30 in the Final Four, which was the most since Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon grabbed 40 in 1983.
Davis also blocked six shots, which moved his season total to 186, thus setting an NCAA record for freshmen.
When Kansas closed a nearly gamelong UK lead to 65-59, Davis forced Elijah Johnson to throw up the ball and try to retrieve it rather than take a three-point shot. The walking call closed the deal.
Davis’ gritty production seemed ironic because Kansas came into the game hoping to out-tough Kentucky.
No doubt, the Jayhawks hoped the muscle and a tight score would work on UK’s nerves.
When asked Sunday if the pressure was on UK, Kansas Coach Bill Self said of his counterpart, John Calipari, “Cal’s not going to say that. He’ll spin it his way. And we’ll spin it our way in our locker room. The favorite usually carries a little bit of extra burden. The favorite also means you have really good players, so I think the favorite role is worth a little bit of extra burden.”
Kansas, which rallied from 13 down to beat Ohio State in Saturday’s national semifinals, staged one of its patented second-half comebacks. The Jayhawks reduced a one-time 18-point UK lead to 62-57 with 1:37 left.
“They’re going to have to play their best game to beat us” guard Tyshawn Taylor said on Sunday.
Kentucky (38-2) wobbled. But the Cats showed again they could make the clutch plays.
A block by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of a Taylor drive with a minute left started the victory celebration.
Kentucky, which trailed for only nine minutes and eight seconds in six NCAA Tournament games, won the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. The eight titles leaves UK trailing only UCLA, which has won 11.
Neither Davis nor Thomas Robinson, the first consensus All-Americans to meet in a title game since Duke’s Elton Brand and Connecticut’s Richard Hamilton in 1999, shot well.
Davis made only one of 10 shots. Robinson made six of 17 shots, while scoring 18 points and grabbing 16 rebounds.
As reflected in a 25-14 rebounding advantage, Kentucky showed plenty of toughness in the first half. The Cats added their signature transition offense to build a 41-27 halftime lead.
Although Kansas came into the championship game with a reputation for resilience and second-half comebacks, this was uncharted territory. It was the Jayhawks’ largest halftime deficit of the season. The previous high came in an 87-86 overtime victory over Missouri in which Kansas trailed 44-32 at intermission.
Kentucky took the lead for good on a jumper by Marquis Teague with 16:42 left.
The Cats steadily expanded the lead, which reached its first-half zenith at 18 points twice in the final 64 seconds of the half.
Kansas came into the game ranked second (to Kentucky) in field-goal defense. But UK made 53.3 percent of its first-half shots.
Baskets by Doron Lamb and Kidd-Gilchrist gave Kentucky its 18-point margins.
Kansas suffered when Robinson made only two of his first 10 shots, often missing badly. With Davis always lurking, Terrence Jones defended Robinson.
Davis, who missed his only four shots of the half, blocked three shots. The third broke the NCAA season record for freshmen, which had been 182 by Marshall’s Hassan Whiteside in 2009-10. Davis got the record-breaker with help defense against a posting Robinson with eight minutes left.
Kidd-Gilchrist’s defense kept Taylor contained offensively.
But back-to-back baskets by Robinson and Taylor in the final minute reduced the UK lead to 14 at halftime.
Kansas, which had outscored its previous four opponents 133-96 in the second half, closed within 41-30 with 17:53 left.
A comeback stalled when Robinson rebounded a Davis miss, but lost the ball. That resulted in a Jones dunk, which put UK ahead 46-40, and a Kansas timeout followed with 14:44 left.
Within the next minute, Kansas scored twice in transition, prompting a UK timeout with 13:52 left.
Kansas got as close as 48-38. Then after a TV timeout, Lamb hit three-pointers from the left corner and the right wing. That put Kentucky ahead 54-38 with 10 minutes left.
With victory seemingly secured, there was time for levity.
After Jones missed the first of two free throws with 6:02 left, making him 0-for-9 in two Final Fours, he made the second. Calipari staggered in mock horror.
A three-pointer by Taylor, which snapped personal 0-for-19 streak in domes, and 0-for-23 in the NCAA Tournament, seemed inconsequential.
But Taylor’s old-fashioned three-point play on a fast-break drive heightened tension. It reduced Kentucky’s lead to 59-50 with 4:17 left.