By LARRY VAUGHT
9:58 PM EDT, March 31, 2012
NEW ORLEANS — For almost 34 minutes, Terrence Jones did almost nothing to make sure that the reason he came back to Kentucky for a second season was going to happen.
Jones bypassed going to the NBA after UK¿lost to Connecticut in the 2011 Final Four because he wanted to win a national title.¿Yet when Louisville turned a 46-34 deficit into a 49-49 tie with 9 minutes, 12 seconds to play Saturday, Jones had been playing like he was auditioning for a part on UK¿super fan Ashley Judd’s TV show, “Missing.”
He wasn’t rebounding as the Cardinals owned the boards in a way no team had this season against UK. He wasn’t scoring. His defense was suspect. Kentucky coach John Calipari got so infuriated with Jones that he jerked him out and scolded him harshly on the bench.
“We’ve got a great relationship,” said Jones. “He tells me what he sees. I don’t see things playing as well as he does. When he tells me, I do it.”
Or at least he did to end the game and that’s a major reason UK won 69-61 and will advance to Monday night’s national championship game. Jones finished with six points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals. He was only 3-for-8 from the field and 0-for-3 at the foul line.
But he powered his way inside to score with 6:21 left to give the Cats a 55-51 lead. He got a defensive rebound, missed a contested shot and got another defensive rebound that set up a 3-pointer by Darius Miller. He got another rebound and blocked Louisville guard Russ Smith’s shot. He drove inside and scored to make it 62-53 with 2:27 left and the Cats held on to a win in a game that fascinated the state all week.
This was the first Final Four matchup between the rivals, and as much as both teams tried to say it was just another game, it wasn’t. A walk down Bourbon Street Friday night confirmed that. A walk anywhere near the Superdome Saturday verified that. The noise level inside the dome confirmed it.
“We’re one game closer to our dream and achieving our goal,” freshman center Anthony Davis said. “Our fans are great to us. We just go out and play ball, but we want to give them a show and give them what they want, which is a national championship.”
Davis played like the consensus national player of the year and was the overall difference in the game. He had 18 points (7-for-8 from the field), 14 rebounds, five blocked shots and two assists. Just his presence allowed other Wildcats to get easy shots — a big reason UK shot 57.1 percent (28-for-49) from the field.
As the game ended, Davis threw the ball high into the air, took out his mouthpiece and said, “This is my stage.” It was a rare show of emotion by the UK All-American, but it was that kind of game.
“It was a close game and was very emotional,” Davis said. “We fought the whole game. We come to Kentucky built for this. We go hard in practice. We are out there to have fun. I am just glad to be here with a national championship chance as a freshman. I had to do this for my team. I¿knew I could make plays. My team needs me to play well and that’s what we did tonight.”
True, but Davis and his teammates need Jones to play like a lottery pick, too. And that’s especially true when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, UK’s most physical player, gets in early foul trouble. With Kidd-Gilchrist limited, the Cards banged on Davis to wear him down and dominated the rebounding most of the second half before Jones came alive.
“We knew the game would stay close,” Jones. “Nobody’s going to quit in this atmosphere and certainly not Louisville. They got a lot of offensive rebounds and those final minutes I just could not let my team down. Coach told me to get in there and fight and get the ball, so I did.”
Sounds simple. So why did it take so long to “get the ball” for Jones?
“I was thinking too much. I was worried about last year (and losing in the Final Four),” Jones said. “Then it was like I saw the time left and knew ¿had to play a lot better. I don’t think it was the pressure of the rivalry or anything. We just finally got the job done like we have all year. They made runs. We made runs. It was just a great win.”
For Louisville, it was a difficult loss to a Cinderella Final Four run. However, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he told Calipari after the game he would be “pulling for you” to win the national title and to “bring the trophy back home to Kentucky.”
That trophy hasn't been “brought back home to Kentucky” since 1998. That’s a long time for the Wildcat faithful to go without a title and the players know they want one just as much as the team does.
“I am sure the fans will be the same way the next game (Monday),” Miller said. “No matter who we play, we always have great fan support. I am sure they wanted this one bad, but to us it really was just the next game because our main goal is to win a championship, not beat a certain team.”
However, being that “certain team” from the Bluegrass has UK¿back in the title game for the first time since 1998 and Kentucky within one game of the national championship quest it has been pursuing all season.
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