NEW ORLEANS — You can say anything you want before a basketball game and maybe people will believe you. So as Saturday night’s Kentucky-Louisville NCAA tournament semifinal game approached, maybe UK’s Anthony Davis was telling the truth when he said, “This is just another game.”
But then the game began, and Louisville fought back from a 13-point second-half hole to tie the game with 9:12 to go — a moment to send the Cardinals portion of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome into ecstasy and the Wildcats’ sea of blue into agony — and you wondered if Davis and his teammates didn’t need to treat this as more than another game if they expected to play another game two nights later.
“They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville made all year and held their own,” UK coach John Calipari said. “We were all right.”
Actually, thanks to 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks from Davis — including four huge rebounds in the final eight minutes — the Cats were 69-61 winners. They next play Monday night against the Kansas-Ohio State winner in the national championship game.
But no one could believe this was just another win for the Wildcats after seeing Davis hurl the game ball to the rafters at game’s end, then point to the Louisville portion of the crowd and shout, “This is our state!”
Afterward, more sheepishly, he said, “It’s our fans. We just go out here and play ball, but they travel a long way and we want to give then what they want, which is a national championship.”
If UK indeed wins its first title in 14 years and its eighth overall, Louisville coach Rick Pitino — who coached Kentucky to the 1996 national championship and two other Final Four appearances — believes Davis will be the No. 1 reason.
“Anthony Davis is as fine a player as there is,” Pitino said. “When you played against Bill Russell at the pro level you understood why the Boston Celtics won those 11 world championships. When you play against this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good.”
They are 37-2 good at the moment, and in many ways the Louisville game was a clinic why.
Not that UK played its best game. After outrebounding the Cards by 26 in a New Year’s Eve win — ironically a 69-62 final — the Cats actually were roughed up on the boards in this one, losing the glass 40-33.
They also missed nine of 20 free throws, turned the ball over nine times in the opening half and hit just two of seven 3-pointers.
But as much as everyone wants to talk about Calipari’s three freshman starters — Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague — it was Big Blue’s lone senior contributor who may have saved the game.
With 5:08 to play, the Wildcats lead back to a nervous four points, Miller drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to move UK in front 58-51. Louisville never drew closer than five the rest of the game. Miller finished with 13 points, three rebounds and two steals to ably back Davis.
“I just told him before that play, ‘You’re as good a shooter as there is in the country. Now stay in there and shoot it.”
Added Teague: “Whenever we get a little hectic on the floor, Darius huddles us together and tells us to stay poised. We always look to him for leadership.”
There are those who don’t like what Kentucky’s third straight team dominated by one-and-doners means to the future leadership of the sport.
Said Pitino in a pointed shot: “I couldn’t do it (one-and-doners). I can’t say hello and goodbye in seven months.”
Of course, Calipari was quick to point out that it’s not his rule, that it’s an NBA rule and colleges are forced to live it.
But he did say he has a solution for keeping Davis — who’s already won almost every major national player of the year award, including the Wooden on Saturday — around next year.
“I told Anthony he could play point guard for us next year,” Cal said with a smile. “Just come back next year and we’ll work that out.”
That’s almost assuredly not going to happen. Whatever happens Monday, Cal almost assuredly will lose Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and Miller, who graduates.
But leave it to Miller to best frame why his teammates have been the favorites to cut down the nets for most of the year: “They play like seniors.”
Which, when you only have them seven months, may say as much about the coach as his players.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...