By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
NEW ORLEANS – Just before heading out the dressing room door to start the second half of Monday night’s NCAA championship game, Kentucky coach John Calipari stopped his freshman center Anthony Davis.
Davis hadn’t scored a point in the first half against Kansas, yet he already had nine rebounds and three blocked shots as the Wildcats established a 14-point lead.
“I told Anthony, `You’ve been the best player on the court the first half and you haven’t scored a point, so don’t feel like you have to go out there and force shots’,” Calipari said. “So what does he do? He goes out and puts up three quick shots right away.”
“But they were open shots, Coach,” Davis said. “They were open, because you were 1-for-10 and they left you open,” Calipari told Davis with a smile.
They could laugh about it afterwards, especially since Kentucky held off a late Kansas rally to win 67-59, capturing UK’s eighth national title and first since 1998.
And they could surely smile, because Davis, despite that 1-for-10 shooting and just 6 points total, was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player because he also collected 16 rebounds and blocked 6 shots, which equaled Kansas team total.
“With the great group of guys that I play with, it wasn’t hard taking a back seat (offensively),” Davis said. “I knew I was struggling. I told them, `I’m going to defend and rebounding and y’all handle the scoring.’ ”
The way Davis helped the 39-2 Wildcats win was something that Calipari said he addressed with his team about a month ago.
“I asked all of them if they couldn’t score points, then what other ways they could help us win?” Calipari said. “What Anthony did tonight was proof of what he could do without scoring.”
Kansas coach Bill Self said the only way he could have reduced Davis’ defensive effectiveness was having an abundance of outside shooters to stretch a defense. "In a perfect world, if you’re a team like Florida that has four stretch guys, you can eliminate him (Davis) from being a factor defensively,” Self said. “We’ve got two stretch guys, we play (offensively) inside-out, and we weren’t going to change what we do overnight.
“We tried to take the ball at him (Davis). We tried to force him to help a teammate on defense. He’s just an unbelievable factor on both ends. But certainly on defense, he’s got timing and he’s a very smart defender as well.”
Davis’ defense was contagious. For instance, with 1:01 left to play and UK clinging to a 63-57 lead, Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor broke free on a backdoor cut and was inches away from banking in a reverse layup when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist blocked it.
“I thought I had it,” Taylor said. “I had him beat, but he didn’t quit on the play and he used his length. He just made an unbelievable play.” Said Kidd-Gilchrist, “I got beat backdoor. Sorry, Coach. Then I blocked the shot.” Calipari gladly accepted Kidd-Gilchrist’s apology, then was especially happy how his team won. “I wanted our team to show that we weren’t just a talented team, but we were a defensive team and a team that shared the ball,” Calipari said. “I wanted that. “I told them I wanted `this (game) to be one for the ages. Go out there and show everyone what kind of team you are, even though you’re young (two sophomores, three freshmen as starters).”
The Wildcats did what they did all year. Each player filled their role superbly. Point guard Marquis Teague, with 14 points and 3 assists, was relentless in the first half in his quest to keep pushing the ball at KU’s scrambling defense. Kidd-Gilchrist bulled his way through a maze of clawing hands, finishing with 11 points and six rebounds. Guards Doron Lamb (22 points) and Darius Miller (5 points, 6 rebounds) circled around the perimeter like sharks, ready to airmail long-range jumpers. Forward Terrence Jones (9 points, 7 rebounds) delivered clutch baskets with the shot clock about to expire.
Lamb hit two huge back-to-back three-pointers in a 33-second span halfway through the second half that increased UK’s lead to 16 points. It made Kansas’ late comeback even more difficult. “I had a great shootaround today and Coach told me I’d have 25 points, but I had 22,” Lamb said. “This feels great. My sophomore year, I win a national championship.”
It took Calipari 20 years and his fourth Final Four appearance at a third different school to get his first national championship. More than anything, he was relieved. “I told my wife, `I’m glad it’s done’,” Calipari said. “I can get on with just coaching basketball, to help players be the best they can be, to help them create better lives for themselves. I don’t have to hear any drama.
“I’m going to be the same guy I’ve always been. I’m going to Mass tomorrow morning. And then I’m going to go out recruiting on Friday.”