UK 67, Kansas 59: Kentucky now has the title that the players expected to win all season
Kentucky head coach John Calipari celebrates with his team after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against Kansas Monday, April 2, 2012, in New Orleans. Kentucky won 67-59. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip / April 3, 2012)
Not only did Kentucky win 38 games, go unbeaten in regular-season Southeastern Conference play and lose just twice all season — 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 — 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. “Coach 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. That’s why he deserved this more than anybody and I am so glad I came back to be part of giving it to him,” Jones said.
Lamb said players openly talked all summer about winning the championship, one reason pressure did not bother the team all season.
“Before the season started, everybody expected us to win every game, and we wanted to really do this,”¿Lamb said. “We had to deal with pressure and expectations all season. We didn’t brush that off because we wanted to win the whole thing.”
Freshmen Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer all started talking about winning a national title — and going undefeated — when they were playing high school all-star games after their high school senior seasons ended.
“It 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. We’ve had a lot of fun,” Teague said. “Coach 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.”
It looked like winning Kentucky’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 Calipari’s team could coast to the title.
Wrong. Kansas eventually trimmed the lead to 62-57 with 1:37 left and every UK fan in the Superdome — plus everyone watching on CBS-TV — had to be taking a big gulp and worrying this team might left its legacy slip away.
“We never doubted,” senior Darius Miller said. “We knew we would be fine.”
And they were. Jones hustled to save a turnover that Davis converted into a free throw. Kidd-Gilchrist blocked Tyshawn Taylor’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 Kenny¿Payne a huge bear hug. Calipari hugged anyone who would let him.
“I am happy for our players and I¿am happy for our fans. This is a great thing for our school and our state,” 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 didn’t change after this game.
“Coach was happy, but he said it was the players who won the title, not him,” senior Eloy Vargas said. “He was not that different than any other game really.”
Calipari joked he was ready to go “back to the hotel and go to bed” — something that certainly wasn’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 Calipari’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 didn’t score the first half. But it didn’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.