No. 1 Kentucky 69, No. 17 Louisville 61

Bragging rights in the Bluegrass State are mighty nice.

Kentucky has its sights set higher.

Much higher.

Anthony Davis and top-seeded Kentucky are right where they

planned to be all along, playing for the national title after

finally putting away pesky Louisville 69-61 in the Final Four on

Saturday night.

”I have a team that’s had teams come at them all year,” coach

John Calipari said, ”and they responded again today.”

It will be Kentucky’s first appearance in the title game since

winning a seventh NCAA crown back in 1998 and it gives Calipari

another shot at the championship that has eluded him. The Wildcats

(37-2) will face No. 2 seed Kansas, a 64-62 winner over Ohio State

in the second semifinal.

After the game, thousands of fans swarmed into the streets near

the University of Kentucky campus, overturning cars and lighting

couches ablaze. Riot police used pepper spray and 150 officers

deployed on the streets at one point to quell what Lexington police

spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts called ”a very dangerous situation

with the fires and the violence” that dragged on for hours.

Lexington City spokeswoman Susan Straub said police made fewer

than 10 arrests, and a few injuries were reported.

As the final seconds ticked down in New Orleans, Davis pointed

to the court and screamed twice, ”This is my stage!”

Yes, yes, it is.

With a star-studded roster that includes at least three, maybe

as many as five NBA lottery picks, Kentucky was the top seed in the

tournament and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets when the

whole tournament was done. And Calipari wouldn’t let his young

players consider anything else, saying repeatedly this was ”just

another game.”

But playing in-state rival Louisville (30-10) is never just

that, and the Cardinals made Kentucky work deep into the second

half to grind this victory out.

Louisville outrebounded Kentucky 40-33, including a whopping

19-6 advantage on the offensive glass – the sole reason the

Cardinals were able to make a game of this.

”To tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the

Kentucky teams. I’m not going to lie to you,” said Louisville

coach Rick Pitino, who counts as something of an expert after

spending eight years in Lexington and the last 11 with the

Cardinals. ”But I really like this team a lot because of their

attitude and the way they play.

”I’ll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy

back to Kentucky. … They’re a great group of guys, doing a

tremendous job.”

So tremendous it led to a thawing, however briefly, in the

frosty relationship between Calipari and Pitino. When the two shook

hands after the game, Pitino congratulated Calipari and told him

he’d be rooting for the Wildcats on Monday night.

”I think that’s neat,” Calipari said. ”When I was at UMass, I

can remember hugging him and telling him, `I’m happy for you and I

really want you to win the national title.’ He did the same to me

tonight, so I think it’s kind of neat.”

Calipari had taken another phenom-laden roster to the Final Four

last year, only to see them come unglued against eventual national

champion Connecticut. The Wildcats said all week they weren’t going

to let the same thing happen this time, and it showed in their

workmanlike effort. No matter how close Louisville got, the

Cardinals were never able to control the game. When they made a

run, Kentucky found a way to stop it. When one of the Wildcats ran

into foul trouble, the others picked him up.

Kentucky played so hard Davis went flying off the court twice,

sailing all the way onto media row once.

”They made runs, and we made our runs. That’s what coach always

says,” said Terrence Jones, who finished with six points and seven

rebounds. ”We never get rattled.”

Bigger, bulkier and with Davis having a wider wingspan than some

small airplanes, the Wildcats looked like playground bullies as

they pushed Louisville around on their way to a 13-point lead early

in the second half. But the Cardinals know a thing about rallies

after coming from 11 points down to beat Florida in last weekend’s

West Regional final, and they sure made Kentucky sweat.

Russ Smith made back-to-back buckets to start a 15-3 run, and

Peyton Siva capped it with a 3-pointer from NBA range that tied the

game at 49 with 9:11 to play. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who

played just 23 minutes because of foul trouble, made back-to-back

buckets to give the Wildcats some breathing room.

After Siva made a pair of free throws, Jones scored on a jumper

and Darius Miller drilled a 3 – only Kentucky’s second of the game

– to give the Wildcats control for good.

”They were the better team today,” Siva said.

Just to make sure Louisville didn’t get any wild notions about

another late comeback, Kidd-Gilchrist threw down a monstrous dunk

with 1:05 to play that had Kentucky fans on their feet and

assistant coaches from Kansas and Ohio State scrambling to try and

find a way to stop this juggernaut.

Kentucky shot a dazzling 57 percent – yes, that’s right – with

Davis leading the way. He missed just one of his eight shots and

finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds, and let his play speak for

itself, not showing any emotion until those closing seconds of the

game.

”Anthony Davis is just the No.1 player in the draft,” Pitino

said of the 19-year-old freshman, who has won just about every

player of the year award there is. ”When you’re playing against

Bill Russell on the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11

world championships.”

Miller added 13 points, and Doron Lamb had 10. Kidd-Gilchrist

had nine, all in the second half.

Siva led the Cardinals with 11 points, and Gorgui Dieng had 12

rebounds.

”I told the guys, `Look, I’m going to Miami tomorrow and

celebrating a season where we worked around the clock, around

injuries and everything else. If you guys don’t celebrate and have

good, clean fun, you’re fools,”’ Pitino said.

The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry causes tempers to flare even in

December when, in the grand scheme of things, games really don’t

mean much. Heck, it took government intervention just to get the

two schools to play on a regular basis back in the 1980s.

With the NCAA title game on the line, the latest skirmish in

basketball’s version of the civil war so divided the small

hoop-crazed state that senior citizens actually came to fisticuffs.

But boy, did it make for a great show. The game was such a big deal

that No. 1 Kentucky fan Ashley Judd wasn’t even the biggest celeb

in the house, with Jay-Z taking a prime seat behind the Kentucky

bench.

”It’s our fans; our fans are great to us,” Davis said. ”Our

fans travel a long way. We want to go out here and give them a show

and give them what they want, which is a national

championship.”

The ultimate bragging rights sure are a nice way to start.

Kentucky is 19-11 since the teams resumed playing in 1983-84,

with the Wildcats winning four straight, including a 69-62 victory

at Rupp Arena on Dec. 31 – almost the exact score as Saturday

night’s win.

The Wildcats know they’re talented – there are three, maybe as

many as five NBA lottery picks on the Kentucky roster – but they

play without ego or cockiness, choosing instead to let their

superior play overwhelm their opponents.

The Cardinals had skidded into the Big East tournament with four

losses in their last six games, including back-to-back defeats to

end the regular season. Pitino told his players they could either

go home after the first week of the tournament or they could do

something special – their choice.

The Cardinals chose the latter, ripping off four wins in four

days to win the Big East tournament and ousting No. 1 seed Michigan

State in the West Regional semifinals. Then came that comeback

against rough-and-tumble Florida.

Those games hardened the Cardinals, and they promised they

weren’t simply happy to reach the Final Four. But they sure looked

it early on, getting off to a slow, sloppy start. It didn’t help

that Dieng looked petrified of Davis and Siva was playing at

hyperspeed, a pace Pitino has been trying to get him to tone down

all year.

When they tried to go inside, Davis was less forgiving than a

bouncer at a Hollywood club. When the Cardinals went outside, the

Wildcats swarmed and forced them to take off-balance shots.

Meanwhile, on the other end, Kentucky scored at will, repeatedly

picking on Siva and Dieng.

But there’s a reason Pitino has taken three teams to the Final

Four. He pulled out every trick he had, switching strategies,

begging the refs for calls and finding a way – finally – to calm

his team down.

”Any time you don’t know whether a team is better offensively

or defensively, you know you’ve got a great basketball team,”

Pitino said. ”And Anthony Davis is incredible.”