Final Four showdown biggest for Bluegrass
Posted: Monday, March 26, 2012 7:00 pm
By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — Think Kentucky vs. Louisville is a big deal during the regular season?
Try the Final Four.
Top-seeded Kentucky set up a Bluegrass showdown in the bayou on Sunday, romping past Baylor 82-70 in the South Regional final. The Wildcats took control with a 16-0 run in the first half, led by 20 at the break and cruised to their second straight Final Four.
Waiting in New Orleans: their rival from the hoops-crazed state.
Louisville had already won its regional, then watched as Kentucky completed the most important matchup ever between schools that are about 65 miles apart. They meet annually during the regular season — the Wildcats won 69-62 on New Year’s Eve — and have played four times in the NCAA tournament.
But never in the Final Four.
“We know it’s going to be a great game,” Kentucky’s Darius Miller said.
That would be a contrast from the win over Baylor — a very good team with a daring fashion sense that was simply no match for coach John Calipari’s latest group of Fab Freshmen. Trailing 42-22 at halftime, the Bears never got closer than 10 the rest of the way, and that was long after Kentucky had taken its foot off the accelerator.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 19 points, Anthony Davis added 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Terrence Jones dazzled in all the overlooked areas: rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
“This team is better than I thought,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “This is the best team we faced all year … probably in a couple of years.”
Two years ago, the Bears lost to eventual national champion Duke in another regional final.
“Duke was a good team,” Drew said, “but Kentucky is better.”
Now, the Wildcats (36-2) move on to the national semifinals Saturday to face Louisville.
Calipari planned to tell his team not to listen to all the hype. The Wildcats have their sights on a national title, and Louisville is merely a roadblock on the way to that goal.
“I’ll tell them to get off the message boards, get off Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “Don’t buy into it. We’re going to New Orleans to play a basketball game. Forget about this tournament. Let’s go be as good as we can be as a team.”
But it’s impossible to get away from the extra significance this game has for both programs.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino led Kentucky to a national title in 1996. Then he left for the NBA, only to the return to the college ranks at the Wildcats’ rival school, sparking plenty of animosity.
Calipari, who has been at Kentucky for three seasons, was asked about his relationship with Pitino.
“It’s fine,” Calipari said. “I mean, we don’t send each other Christmas cards. But I see him in public. Or in recruiting, we’ll spend some time together.”
Kidd-Gilchrist shrugged when someone asked about playing the Cardinals.
“I’m just worried about us,” he said. “I don’t worry about anybody else.”
Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist are the latest freshman stars in Calipari’s one-and-done system, two guys who will likely be off to the NBA before they really learned their way around campus.
Two years ago, John Wall led Kentucky to the regional final. Last season, Brandon Knight helped the Wildcats reach the Final Four. Now, with those guys in the NBA — and Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis likely to be following shortly — Big Blue is again positioned to claim its first national title since 1998.
“There are some opinions that will never change,” Calipari said. “All I’m trying to do is coach these young people.”
But for all the talk about his freshmen, Calipari is getting plenty of contributions from those who hung around beyond their first year. Start with Jones, a sophomore forward who passed up the draft. He scored just one point in the opening half, but in the end his fingerprints were all over Kentucky’s dominating performance: nine rebounds, six assists, three blocks and two steals — most in the first 10 minutes.
“It’s kind of hard to play us,” Davis said.
“We’re very long and very athletic. It makes it tough on the other team.”
Quincy Acy led Baylor with 22 points, and Pierre Jackson added 21. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
“They’re a great team,” Acy said. “They’ve got some good dudes down there.”
With Baylor’s Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III cheering from the stands, Acy tried to send an early message early that the Bears (30-8) would not be intimidated by the Wildcats.
Jones was going in for a fastbreak layup when the 235-pound Acy came up from behind, took a whack at the ball but mainly just crashed into the Kentucky player, sending him flying into the Baylor cheerleaders along the baseline. Jones was OK, and the officials doled out a flagrant foul on Acy.
The Bears, seemingly inspired by Acy’s bravado, ripped off an 8-0 run that led Calipari to call a quick timeout. He already had yanked Doron Lamb from the game for trying to make the highlight reels rather than taking a layup. The sophomore guard passed up a clear path to the basket, instead opting for a lob pass to the trailing Davis, who missed the dunk.
After Quincy Miller hit an uncontested 3-pointer from the top of the lane to give Baylor a 10-5 lead, Calipari lashed into his young team.
“I told them we’ve got to step on the gas here,” he said.
Boy, did they ever. Sixteen consecutive points, an NBA-like display of defensive dominance and easy baskets that sent the Georgia Dome, and the predominantly blue-clad crowd, into a frenzy.
They might as well have cut down the nets right then.
“It’s a great feeling to be part of something special,” Davis said.
Kentucky’s only serious scare came early in the second half when Davis went down with an injured left knee. The 6-foot-10 freshman was driving to the basket when he banged into Baylor’s Perry Jones III, going down hard along the baseline. A hush fell over the massive stadium as Davis, writhing in pain, grabbed at his knee.
Finally, he limped to the bench, but it was clear the injury wasn’t too serious when the trainers kept flexing the leg, then rubbed it with an ointment to ease the pain. Just a couple of minutes later, he was back in the game.
“The knee is doing fine,” Davis said. “I wasn’t going to sit out, especially with a trip to the Final Four (one the line). All of us want to go to the Final Four.”
Louisville will be waiting.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963
Published in The Messenger 3.26.12