NEW ORLEANS — No matter where Anthony Davis and his buddies go to make their millions, their ol’ Kentucky home will long remember this championship season.
The Wildcats hit the jackpot with their lottery picks Monday night, ignoring Davis’ bad shooting night and parlaying a roster full of NBA talent into a 67-59 victory over Kansas for the team’s eighth national title — and its first since 1998.
The one-and-doners did it in a wire-to-wire victory — a little dicey at the end — to cap a season in which anything less than bringing a title back to the Bluegrass State would have been a downer. They led coach John Calipari to his first title in four trips to the Final Four with three different schools.
“This is not about me. This is about these 13 players,” Calipari said. “This is about the Big Blue Nation.”
Doron Lamb, a sophomore with first-round-draft-pick possibilities, led the Wildcats (38-2) with 22 points, including back-to-back 3-pointers that put them up by 16 with 10 minutes left.
The Jayhawks (32-7), kings of the comeback all season, fought to the finish and trimmed that deficit to five with 1:37 left. But Kentucky made five free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
Davis’ fellow lottery prospect, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, was another headliner, creating space for himself to score all 11 of his points in the first half.
Davis, meanwhile, might have had the most dominating six-point night in the history of college basketball, earning the nod as the most outstanding player. He finished with 16 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and three steals — and made his only field goal with 5:13 left in the game. It was a surefire illustration of how the 6-foot-10 freshman can exert his will on a game even on a rare night when the shot isn’t falling.
“Well, it’s not me, it’s these guys behind me,” Davis said after his 1-for-10 performance. “They led us this whole tournament. This whole game I was struggling offensively, and I told my team, every time down, you all score the ball; I’m just gonna defend and rebound.”
So much easier when you’ve got teammates like this. Davis is the likely first pick in the draft should he choose to come out, and Kidd-Gilchrist won’t be far behind. Another first-round prospect, freshman Marquis Teague, had 14 points. And yet another, sophomore Terrence Jones, had nine points, seven rebounds and two of Kentucky’s 11 blocked shots.
“We’ve got a lot of great players on this team,’” Teague said. “Other players stepped up and made plays. He had confidence in us to make plays and that’s what we tried to do.”
Kansas also has a lottery pick in AP All-American Thomas Robinson. But he was harassed all night by Davis and Jones and finished with 18 points and 17 rebounds on a 6-for-17 shooting night.
The Jayhawks won the “B” League this year, as Calipari avenged a final-game loss to Bill Self back in 2008 when Cal was coaching the Tigers. Not a bad season in Lawrence, though, considering where KU began.
Kansas lost four of its top five scorers off last year’s roster. There were times early in the season when Self and his old buddy and mentor, Larry Brown, would stand around at practices and wonder if this was a team that could even make the tournament. It did. Won its eighth straight conference title, too.
None of this, however, was for the faint of heart. The Jayhawks trailed by double digits in three of their five tournament games leading to the final and played every game down to the wire. They fell behind by 18 late in the first half of this one and this time, there was no big comeback to be made; not against these guys.
“We came up short, but I don’t think we lost. I think they just beat us,” Self said.
Davis realized early this was no shoot-first night for him at the Superdome. Sporting his near-unibrow, which the UK Wildcat mascot also decided to paste on, he endured the worst shooting night of a short college career in which he makes 64 percent. No big deal. He set the tone early on defense, swatting Robinson’s shot twice, grabbing rebounds, making pretty bounce passes for assists.
Early in the second half, he made a steal that also could have been an assist, knocking the ball out of Robinson’s hands and directly to Jones, who dunked for a 46-30 lead.
Then, finally. With 5:13 left in the game, he spotted up for a 15-foot jumper from the baseline that swished for a 59-44 lead, putting a dagger in one of Kansas’ many comebacks.
“He was terrific,” Self said. “The basket he made was one of the biggest baskets of the game.”
The crowd, a little more full of Kentucky fans than Kansas, went crazy. If this guy only stays one year and only makes one shot, they’re fine with that.
It’s the new normal at Kentucky, where Adolph Rupp set a standard, Rick Pitino lived up to it for a while, then Calipari — hardly the buttoned-down type — was hired to bring back the glory.
He goes for the best player, no matter what their long-term goals.
Normally, the prospect of losing all those players in one swoop would have people thinking about a tough rebuilding year.
But Cal has mastered the art of rebuilding on the fly.
He’s the coach who brings in the John Walls, Brandon Knights and Derrick Roses (at Memphis) for cups of coffee, lets them sharpen up their resumes, then happily says goodbye when it becomes obvious there’s nothing left for them to do in school.
Last year, the formula resulted in a trip to the Final Four that ended with a crushing loss to Connecticut in the semifinals.
This year, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist came to Lexington with big-time bona-fides, and they didn’t disappoint. Kentucky lost only twice all season — once on a buzzer-beater at Indiana, the second time last month in the SEC tournament title game to Vanderbilt.
The Vandy loss might have been, as Calipari put it, just what the doctor ordered for a team that could sometimes border on arrogance.
They rebounded nicely for the real tournament, and through it all, the coach refused to apologize for the way he recruits or how he runs his program. Just playing by the rules as they’re set up, he says, even if he doesn’t totally agree with them. Because he refuses to promise minutes or shots to any recruit and demands teamwork out of all of them, he says he comes by these players honestly.
He has produced nine first-round picks in the last four drafts with a few more coming. This latest group will have an NCAA title in tow and the everlasting love of a fan base that bleeds basketball.
“I don’t know of any team that has sacrificed for each other like this team and they deserve this moment, they really do,” Calipari said.