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By LARRY VAUGHT
NEW ORLEANS â€” Kentuckyâ€™s year-long national championship quest is over thanks to a 67-59 victory over Kansas in the national championship game.
Not only did Kentucky win 38 games, go unbeaten in regular-season Southeastern Conference play and lose just twice all season â€” a buzzer-beat at Indiana that led to fans storming the court and a rare final four-minute scoring collapse against Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament â€” but the Wildcats started what every player on the roster planned on since last April.
Sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones turned down chances to go to the NBA a year ago to be part of a national championship team and loved giving coach John Calipari his first title. â€œCoach is coach and helped so many people and has changed so many lives. He is a good coach and a good person. If we lose, he tries to take all the blame. If we win, he gives us all the credit. Thatâ€™s why he deserved this more than anybody and I am so glad I came back to be part of giving it to him,â€ Jones said.
Lamb said players openly talked all summer about winning the championship, one reason pressure did not bother the team all season.
â€œBefore the season started, everybody expected us to win every game, and we wanted to really do this,â€â€ˆLamb said. â€œWe had to deal with pressure and expectations all season. We didnâ€™t brush that off because we wanted to win the whole thing.â€
Freshmen Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer all started talking about winning a national title â€” and going undefeated â€” when they were playing high school all-star games after their high school senior seasons ended.
â€œIt was a great year for us. We have seven starters who all decided from day one to be unselfish and take this thing as far as we could. Weâ€™ve had a lot of fun,â€ Teague said. â€œCoach Cal told us whether we won or lost the national title we had a great year, but we wanted a championship. We are all unselfish and we trust each other. We know if we gave somebody the ball in position to make a play, they would make a play. But the biggest thing is we just trusted each other and knew we could do this.â€
It looked like winning Kentuckyâ€™s eighth national championship might be a lot easier than it ended up Monday night. Kentucky was magnificent the first half and built a 39-21 lead with 2 minutes 52 seconds left in the half. However, Kansas not only cut the margin to 41-27 at halftime, but national player of the year Anthony Davis got his second foul. Still at 59-44 with only 5:13 to play, it looked like Calipariâ€™s team could coast to the title.
Wrong. Kansas eventuallly trimmed the lead to 62-57 with 1:37 left and every UK fan in the Superdome â€” plus everyone watching on CBS-TV â€” had to be taking a big gulp and worrying this team might left its legacy slip away.
â€œWe never doubted,â€ senior Darius Miller said. â€œWe knew we would be fine.â€
And they were. Jones hustled to save a turnover that Davis converted into a free throw. Kidd-Gilchrist blocked Tyshawn Taylorâ€™s reverse lay-up and Teague made two free throws for a 65-57 lead with 53.9 seconds left and the part was ready to start.
When the final horn finally sounded, there was Jones hugging Kidd-Gilchrist. Davis gave assistant coach Kennyâ€ˆPayne a huge bear hug. Calipari hugged anyone who would let him.
â€œI am happy for our players and Iâ€ˆam happy for our fans. This is a great thing for our school and our state,â€ Calipari said.
As he has all season, Calipari gave the players all the credit. He constantly insisted during the NCAA Tournament that it was about them, not him winning his first national title. That didnâ€™t change after this game.
â€œCoach was happy, but he said it was the players who won the title, not him,â€ senior Eloy Vargas said. â€œHe was not that different than any other game really.â€
Calipari joked he was ready to go â€œback to the hotel and go to bedâ€ â€” something that certainly wasnâ€™t going to happy with family, friends and UK fans waiting at the hotel and a massive Rupp Arena celebration planned when the team arrives back home Tuesday to deliver the championship trophy that UK fans live to have.
This game was a perfect example of why Calipariâ€™s team was so hard to beat. Kentucky was just 7-for-26 from the field the second half. Davis was just 1-for-10 from the field in the game and didnâ€™t score the first half. But it didnâ€™t matter. Not on this team of unselfish players who prided themselves on always finding a way to win.
Lamb was spectacular and went over the 1,000-point mark in his career by pouring in 22 points on 7-for-12 shooting. When Kentucky needed a key second-half shot, he hit it. Teague was only 5-for-14 from the field, but had 14 points and three assists.
Jones had just nine points and seven rebounds, but he played as hard and with as much effort for 29 minutes as he has at any time in his career. He blocked two shots, got a steal and helped harass Kansas star Thomas Robinson into going 6-for-17 from the field.
Then there was Davis. How many players can change a game without scoring? Not many. But Davis did with 16 rebounds, five assists, six blocks and three steals.â€ˆHe intimidated the Jayhawks â€” one big reason Kansas shot just 35.5 percent.
Davis insisted after the game he would not make a decision about his future until sitting down with Calipari and his parents later this month. But heâ€™s gone to the NBA where he will be the No. 1 pick after a season where he led UK in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and steals. He did it all, and never cared about anything but winning.
â€œIt doesnâ€™t matter if I donâ€™t score. If we win, thatâ€™s all that counts,â€ Davis said.
â€œWe tried to take it to ‘em. We tried to force help. The second half, shots he blocked, majority went out of bounds, which is okay,â€ Kansas coach Bill Self said. â€œHe is an unbelievable factor on both ends, but certainly defensively he’s got timing, his first jump is unbelievable, and he’s a very smart defender, as well.â€
Heâ€™s also a great teammate and that was a major reason this team was so unselfish and cared so much about each other. Kidd-Gilchrist was the same way. So was Miller. Actually, they were all that way.
Thatâ€™s why they were giddy on the podium receiving the national championship trophy, but a lot happier when they got to go up into the stands to see family members. Jones didnâ€™t want to let go off the trophy he came back to Kentucky to win, but he gladly gave it up to go hug his mother, aunt and grandmother. â€œI couldnâ€™t wait to get up there to see them,â€ he said. â€œThey mean everything to me.â€
Kidd-Gilchristâ€™s mother, Cynthia Richardson, was on the court after the game taking pictures and smiling as she watched her son on the national championship podium.
â€œThis is what we came to Kentucky for. We really believed this could happen, and it did. I am so proud of him,â€ she said.
Calipari didnâ€™t show a lot of emotion, but he didnâ€™t hide his feelings for this team that had been ranked No. 1 most of the season yet had heard time after time that a team built on one-and-done players that depended on freshmen couldnâ€™t win a title. Maybe that had been true, but the Wildcats busted that myth for good with his win.
â€œListen, this team deserves all the accolades that they’ve been getting.Â And what I wanted them to show today is that we were not just a talented team, we were a defensive team, and we were a team that shared the ball,â€ Calipari said. â€œI wanted everybody to see it because it became, â€˜They’re more talented than everybody.â€™
â€œWe were the best team this season. We were the best team. The most efficient team. We shared the ball. I’ve wanted that. I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages. Go out there and show everyone what kind of team you are, even though we were young. It doesn’t matter how young you are, it’s how you play together.â€
And this season no one played together better than Kentucky.