Bob Ford: Late surge, Davis carry Kentucky past Louisville

(right) of Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist, of Somerdale, is expected to be a top-3 NBA pick. MARK CORNELISON / Lexington Herald-Leader
(right) of Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist, of Somerdale, is expected to be a top-3 NBA pick. MARK CORNELISON / Lexington Herald-Leader (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb)
Posted: April 01, 2012

NEW ORLEANS - It was the battle for Kentucky in the first semifinal game at the Final Four on Saturday evening, and Louisville found itself in the unenviable position of having won a majority of the skirmishes but still having lost the war.

Nobody comes to the Final Four just to have the I-64 corridor between Lexington and Louisville renamed the Nice Try Boulevard, but that was all the satisfaction the Cardinals would take away from their showdown with the University of Kentucky.

The Wildcats, just as they were supposed to, advanced to Monday's national championship game against either Ohio State or Kansas. Maybe the 69-61 win wasn't as impressive as many predicted and maybe it could have gone the other way, but it was still Louisville that got the earlier return to the dear old Bluegrass State.

Louisville had more rebounds. Louisville had fewer turnovers. Louisville had more hustle and drive than Kentucky. What Louisville did not have, however, was Anthony Davis. There was only one of those to go around and Kentucky had cornered the market.

"This is my stage," the 6-foot-10 freshman screamed as he grabbed his final rebound of the night and dribbled out the clock before hurling the ball into the air far above the Superdome court.

Hard to argue. On a night when some other Kentucky regulars were missing in action or nailed to the bench with foul trouble, Davis was the difference. He finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks - becoming the first player in the Final Four to go at least 15-10-5 since Danny Manning in 1988. Those numbers are impressive by themselves, but fail to express his effect on the game.

"Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Any time you don't know whether a team is better offensively or defensively, you know you got a great team."

Davis, who is expected to make himself available for the NBA draft and is further expected to be the first pick, took care of both ends of the court. He forced the Cardinals - who were wearing a lovely shade of Cardinal neon orange for some reason - to take either bad or highly contested shots. Even around the rim, Davis helped turn Louisville into 35 percent shooters for the game. Louisville had 16 missed dunks or layups, not all of which could be attributed to the presence of Davis, but plenty could.

Coach John Calipari, who is one game away from his first NCAA title in a 20-year collegiate head-coaching career at three schools, agreed that Davis was special, but not out of character.

"He did what he's done all year," Calipari said. "He's played like this all year. It's how he's been."

And that's a big part of the reason Kentucky is 37-2, but it's a bigger part of the reason the Wildcats didn't get bounced on Saturday night. That game was there for Kentucky to lose in excruciating fashion as a 13-point second- half lead dwindled and disappeared.

It was almost a replay of last year's national semifinal, when the Wildcats couldn't make their free throws and came apart in the second half against Connecticut. As their 45-32 lead over Louisville grew smaller, Kentucky committed turnovers and missed 6 out of 7 free throws.

When Louisville tied the game at 49-49 with nine minutes to play, it was Davis who kicked them back in gear with a huge offensive rebound and a difficult pass as he was falling out of bounds to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for a layup.

At the same time, the Cardinals were about to embark on an 0-for-9 stretch of shooting from the floor, largely influenced by Davis. When Louisville emerged from that ill-timed fade, the game would never be closer than five points again.

"My team needs me to play well, just like I need them to play well," Davis said.

He held up his end of things, and with one more of those run-of-the-mill games that Calipari has come to expect, the stage will really be his.

Nothing is certain, however. Louisville almost proved that with a tenacious game that very nearly earned the Cardinals the upset. They were that close, but, in the end, they were still 6 feet, 10 inches away.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns and recent columns at philly.com/bobford

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