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April 3, 2012

Kentucky wins eighth NCAA title

NEW ORLEANS - He was not yet an hour removed from having won his first NCAA championship, and already John Calipari had set his sights higher.

Calipari had just coached Kentucky to a 67-59 win against Kansas in the Superdome, claiming the school's eighth national championship and shedding the "Never-Won-One" label that's stuck with him for years.

And already he was dreaming bigger.

"Before I leave coaching, I want to coach a team that goes 40-0," Calipari said. "Before I'm out of here, before I'm done. And the reason is, they say it can't be done."

They wondered, too, if Calipari would ever climb up a ladder and cut down a net on college basketball's biggest stage. That question is answered. The coach with the one-and-done players, the guy who recruits the best of the best and sends them on to the NBA Draft lottery, will be fitted for a ring.

The team that took him to the mountaintop - and Calipari will want it said that this team took him, not the other way around - was as talented as any he's ever coached, as stocked with former McDonald's All-Americans and future NBA standouts as any he's had or is likely to.

And yet the Wildcats (38-2) were as much blue-collar as blue-chip. Kentucky showed both sides on Monday, sprinting out to an 18-point first-half lead, then grinding out a tight win after Kansas rallied within six late.

No player was more emblematic of that duality than Anthony Davis.

The national Player of the Year had an off night offensively, smothered by Kansas' own shot-blocking specialist Jeff Withey. But Davis, known best for spectacular blocks and highlight-reel dunks, put in a workmanlike effort against the Jayhawks (32-7).

Davis blocked six shots, tying Joakim Noah's NCAA title-game record. He grabbed 16 rebounds. He dished out four assists and had three steals.

"It's not hard to take a backseat (offensively), especially with playing with a great group of guys," Davis said. "All these guys could play. I knew I was struggling. So I told to them, 'I'm going to defend and rebound, you all make all the points.' That's what they did tonight."

It's a testament to Kentucky's spectacular talent that Davis could take a night off offensively and the Wildcats could win a national championship. But this was about more than talent.

It always was.

From the beginning, Kentucky was a team that understood it was stronger as a unit than as a collection of individuals. So the style in which the Wildcats won this NCAA title should come as no surprise.

"If you do something together, if you play more for your teammates than yourself, if you sacrifice, give up a little of yourself for the team, it's amazing (the) stuff can be done," Calipari said. "And to have a talented group like this do that, it's amazing. And then they defended. Fought like crazy. And they did it for each other."

Kansas made them fight on Monday night. It didn't always look like the Jayhawks would.

When Doron Lamb - who led Kentucky with 22 points - made a long two-point jumper with 2:59 to play in the first half, the Cats led 39-21, and the game looked like less a competition than a coronation.

But the Jayhawks weren't going to let the Cats be crowned so easily.

KU cut the lead to as few as six points in the closing minutes, a rally that was eerily reminiscent of the one Bill Self's 2008 Kansas team had made to deny Calipari's 2008 Memphis team an NCAA title.

That thought never crossed Calipari's mind.

"Nope," he said. "Never thought we'd lose. Never thought we'd lose."

They didn't. Again and again, when Kansas threw a punch, Kentucky countered. The knockout blow came on defense, from the poster child for the Wildcats' gritty approach.

With just over a minute to play, KU's Tyshawn Taylor cut baseline and had a path to a basket that would have cut the Kentucky lead to four. From out of nowhere, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist rose and swatted the shot.

"I got beat on the back door," Kidd-Gilchrsit said. "I apologize, coach. But I just blocked the shot."

The Cats made 4-of-5 free throws down the stretch to secure the win and set off a celebration.

"That's what being at Kentucky's about," Calipari said. "How many of these kind of games did we have this year? You tell me. Fifteen? Eighteen? It's what being at Kentucky's about. You'll be ready for this tournament."

After the confetti had fallen and nets had been clipped, after "One Shining Moment" had played, UK forward Terrence Jones cradled the NCAA championship trophy and yelled to reporters, "I'm not letting it go!"





The smile he wore was a stark contrast to the somber look he'd walked off the court with last spring, when the Wildcats lost to Connecticut in a National Semifinal. He'd dreamed of this moment since.

"Ever since I was crying in the locker room," Jones said.

Eventually, Jones gave up the trophy. He had to walk up into stands, had to see his mother.

"It would have took too long to get up there holding that big trophy," he said.

So Jones handed off the trophy. By the time Kentucky got into the locker room, Darius Miller was holding it.

That the Wildcats were sharing when it was over was no surprise.

"I wanted everybody to see it because it became, 'They're more talented than everybody,'" Calipari said. "We were the best team this season. We were the best team. The most efficient team. We shared the ball.

"I've wanted that. I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages. Go out there and show everyone what kind of team you are, even though we were young. It doesn't matter how young you are, it's how you play together."


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