- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW ORLEANS -- The immediate reaction to Kentucky's 67-59 national championship win over Kansas:
Overview: Kentucky fans, breathe easy. The coronation is complete.
We expected a coronation, and that's exactly how much of this game went. Kentucky jumped out to a big lead early, extended it to as many as 18 points in the first half, went to the half with a 41-27 lead, and was never truly threatened throughout the second half.
How? The Wildcats were, as they have been all tournament, comprehensively good. They shot 16-of-30 in the first half, using every manner of attack -- at the rim and from the perimeter, jump shots and isolation drives, you name it -- in ways Kansas, one of the nation's best defenses all season, couldn't hope to match.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats might have been even better on the defensive end, especially in the second half. Kansas never got anything easy, and Anthony Davis was everywhere: He blocked three shots in the first half and six for the game (and changed countless more), while skying high over Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey to grab what felt like every rebound. Robinson shot 6-for-17, Withey just 2-of-8; both were stymied all night by Davis and the ever-active quick-handed Cats defense. The KU big men needed to have a big game -- and Kansas' defense needed to play all 40 minutes very well, as Jayhawks coach Bill Self said this weekend -- to have a real chance of upsetting this Kentucky team. Neither happened.
Turning point: But that doesn't mean Kentucky didn't have to sweat. Oh, Big Blue Nation had to sweat. Of course it did.
With 10 minutes left in the second half, Kansas looked poised to go on its traditional second-half run. Robinson converted a dunk, Tyshawn Taylor made a fast-break layup, and the lead was cut to 10 at 48-38. Jayhawks fans were rowdy. The momentum seemed to shift. And then Doron Lamb struck. Lamb's back-to-back 3-pointers moved the lead back to 16 points, Kansas still couldn't get easy shots to cut the deficit, and Kentucky maintained a double-digit lead until the five-minute mark.
That's when Taylor came alive. The Kansas senior (somehow) sank a deep 2-pointer over Davis, followed by a fast-break, one-on-two layup and the foul. That cut the lead to nine -- the closest the game had been since midway through the first half -- and by the under-four timeout, Kansas fans had regained hope that this unlikely team had another unlikely comeback left in the tank. The lead closed to seven on two Robinson free throws, then grew to 10 again on a Marquis Teague 3, then went back to 7 as Johnson hit a wide-open answer of his own. Teague took another top-of-the-key jumper, but this one missed, and Robinson nearly completed a 3-point play on a surprising pass from Withey.
Robinson knocked down both free throws, cutting the lead to five. And after Kentucky nearly turned the ball over, Jones corralled it and sent it to Davis, who made one of two free throws and kept the lead relatively safe at six, with just 1:11 left to play.
Self drew up a backcut play for Taylor out of a timeout. Taylor caught it going at the rim but was defended and blocked by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Later, with the lead still at six, the Jayhawks found Johnson open in the corner. Johnson lifted to take a 3. But Davis flew out to challenge the shot, forcing Johnson to drop the ball, travel, and give it back to UK. Lamb sealed the game with two free throws with 17 seconds left, and UK fans were finally free to cheer. Coach John Calipari hugged his staff. The national championship was official. The coronation, which came with no small share of stress, was real.
Key player: Anthony Davis. You watched the game, so you saw him in action. When have we seen a collegiate player with the ability to thoroughly control a game without scoring a point, as he did in the first half. When have we seen a player who can shoot 1-for-10 from the field and still be the best on the floor for much of the contest? His final line: 6 points, 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists, 3 steals.
There's a reason Davis has so dominated this season, and tournament, why he'll be the obvious No. 1 pick in a loaded 2012 draft: He is simply on another level than his competition. Never was that more obvious than on the game's biggest stage.
Key stat: Kansas shot just 17-of-51 from inside the arc. All season, the Jayhawks' interior play has been their main offensive strength, but Kentucky's defense was too much, and even a 5-of-11 night from 3-point territory wasn't enough to make up for it. The Jayhawks finished well below the one-point-per-possession mark, and their inability to finish in the low block -- thank Davis (as well as Jones and Darius Miller) for that -- was the reason why.
What's next: Kentucky will go down as one of the best teams of the past decade, and maybe longer, a dominant force comprised not only of talent, but of complementary pieces -- a real team in every sense of the word. They were unstoppable in this tournament, and Davis, who dominated this Final Four and his team's final game in every way imaginable, will be remembered as the most successful one-and-done talent since Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national title. Tonight was the crowning achievement of Davis' short but wondrous collegiate career, and we'll never forget it.
This was also the crowning achievement of Calipari's much-debated coaching career, the season in which his best-in-class ability to acquire the best talent in the country, and mold that talent into quality college basketball teams, paid the ultimate dividends. He found a once-in-a-generation talent (Davis) and a fearless, selfless warrior (Kidd-Gilchrist), and put those two pieces alongside at least three or four other potential NBA players. By the end of the season, this team had no holes. It was something close to flawless.
Calipari will always be controversial, but there's nothing controversial about the season this team had or the role its coach played in guiding it.