By Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
NEW ORLEANS — Conventional wisdom before Kentucky and Louisville squared off in the Final Four on Saturday suggested that if the Cardinals were their usual dominant selves on the offensive glass and if the Wildcats shot poorly from 3-point range, Louisville might be able to pull off an upset.
So much for conventional wisdom.
Louisville did dominate the backboards, snaring 19 offensive rebounds to just six for Kentucky. And the Wildcats managed to make just 2 of 7 3-pointers (28.6 percent). So how did Kentucky pull out a 69-61 win to advance to Monday night’s national championship game?
Call it unflappability.
Though Kentucky coach John Calipari
has started three freshmen and two sophomores most of the season, this is a group of old souls whose play belies their youth. When Louisville’s Peyton Siva
tied the score at 49 with a 3-pointer at 9:12, the Wildcats weren’t rattled. They just reached back for an extra gear and won the game, just as they had done 36 previous times this season.
Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
had contributed the grand total of one point but quickly made up for lost time after Siva’s 3, taking a pass from fellow freshman Anthony Davis
and scoring to give Kentucky the lead again. And he made sure the Wildcats stayed ahead. An MKG dunk with 8:03 to play gave his team a 53-49 lead and handed the baton to this team’s only senior contributor, Darius Miller
, who provided final separation with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws that inflated the lead to 60-51 with 4:29 left.
About the same time Kidd-Gilchrist began to assert himself, so did sophomore Terrence Jones
, who grabbed four of his seven rebounds in a quick burst of about three minutes.
Then there was consensus player- and freshman-of-the-year Anthony Davis, who at one point late in the game approached Calipari, and in an uncharacteristic moment, pretty much demanded the ball on the low block. His final numbers: 18 points, 14 rebounds, five blocked shots.
“I thought we dug deep,” Calipari said.
That’s what Kentucky (37-2) has done all season, save for a couple of late-game slipups at Indiana and against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament finals. If the Wildcats win the national championship on Monday night, sheer talent will be a factor — this team has seven NBA Draft picks. But maturity, mental toughness, will to win — all that intangible stuff coaches beg for but never receive often enough — will be the key.