- Jason King
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NEW ORLEANS -- The final horn had sounded and the handshake line was beginning to form. But in the moments after Saturday's 69-61 victory over Louisville in the Final Four, Kentucky forward Anthony Davis wasn't ready to leave the court.
Walking from one end of the floor to the other, the national player of the year gazed into sea of 73,361 fans who filled the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, raised his arms into the air and shouted.
"This is my s---," he said. "This is my s---."
Not so fast, Anthony.
You haven't been handed the trophy. Not yet.
Kentucky has been the class of college basketball all season, but the team that so many anointed as a shoo-in to win the NCAA title before the brackets were even released hardly looked invincible in Saturday's workmanlike victory over the Cardinals.
The Wildcats shot 57 percent from the floor and got 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks from Davis. But they also missed nearly half of their free throws (11 of 20) and never could put away a Louisville squad that finished seventh in the Big East with a 10-8 record.
Kentucky -- which will play Kansas in Monday's championship game -- was also fortunate that the Cardinals missed 13 layups and dunks.
"We didn't play our best tonight," said Wildcats coach John Calipari, who is seeking his first NCAA title. "We played good, but that wasn't our best."
Louisville fought back from a 13-point second-half deficit to force a 49-49 tie with 9:11 remaining. And it was still a four-point game until Kentucky's Darius Miller swished a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 58-51 at the 5:06 mark.
Kentucky stayed in control the rest of the way.
"They never let down," Kentucky guard Doron Lamb said. "Every time we made a run, they fought back. We'll have to play a lot better to win on Monday."
Indeed, as scrappy as Louisville has been throughout March, the Cardinals -- who fell out of the Top 25 rankings at one point this season -- aren't even in the discussion with teams such as Kentucky and Kansas when it comes to pure talent.
Led by first-team All-American forward Thomas Robinson, fourth-year starting point guard Tyshawn Taylor and 7-foot shot-blocker Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks entered the tournament playing as well as any team in the country. Bill Self's squad has won 14 of its past 15 games including Saturday's 64-62 victory over Ohio State. KU won despite trailing by 13 points in the first half.
"We must play tougher [Monday] than we played this game," Calipari said. "If we don't, it's going to be a hard game for us to win.
Talent, all that other stuff whoever we play is going to be an outstanding team. So we're going to have to play tougher than we did this game."
The Wildcats may have been sloppy at times Saturday -- they committed 14 turnovers and were outrebounded 40-33 -- but questioning this team's mental toughness and resolve is something that should never occur.
Playing under the glare that hovers over Kentucky's program each year is tough enough. But this season has been particularly challenging.
It's a lot of pressure when people expect you to win every game. All season long, people just [assumed] we were going to get to this point. It's not that easy.
--Kentucky guard Doron Lamb
From the moment practices began in October, Kentucky and North Carolina were championed as the top teams in all of college basketball. It was the Wildcats and Tar Heels, analysts said, and then everyone else.
Kentucky grabbed the stage all to itself after defeating North Carolina 73-72 on Dec. 3 in Lexington. As the year went on, there were those who opined that these Wildcats may be remembered as one of the best teams in college basketball history.
"It's a lot of pressure when people expect you to win every game," Lamb said. "All season long, people just [assumed] we were going to get to this point. It's not that easy."
Forward Terrence Jones said he's not surprised he and his teammates -- including three freshmen starters -- have shown so much resiliency during a season when Kentucky has been compared to lower-tier NBA teams.
"We deal with pressure every day," he said. "It's just part of being at Kentucky. The things that people say about us we try not to hear it. We just focus on treating every game the same. Tonight's game was just another game to us."
That's rather tough to believe.
Played before the second-largest crowd to ever witness an NCAA tournament game, the Kentucky-Louisville matchup in Saturday's semifinal was one of the most anticipated events in the state's history. Along with pitting two bitter rivals against one another, the game also featured a showdown between two of the game's top coaches in Calipari and Louisville's Rick Pitino.
Fans of each schools bickered and trash-talked with each other Friday night and Saturday afternoon on Bourbon Street. Luminaries such as Jay-Z, Ashley Judd and Shaquille O'Neal were spotted in the stands along with Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Louisville scored the first basket of the game, but Kentucky responded with eight straight points and never trailed again. Even though they played far from their best, Calipari was impressed, once again, with how well his players shared the ball.
"They listen and they trust," Calipari said. "The reason they trust is because they know it's a players-first program. They play how we're asking them to play."
Not a single Kentucky player took more than nine shots Saturday. Miller, who scored 13 points off the bench, said he's confident young players such as Davis, point guard Marquis Teague and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist won't be unnerved by Monday's big stage.
The Wildcats will be playing a Kansas team that starts four juniors and a senior.
"These guys don't play like freshmen," Miller said. "They play like seniors in college. We've been successful in those situations throughout the whole year. So I don't have any doubt that they'll [be ready]."
"Whether we win or lose Monday, it's great just to be here," Davis said. "I'm just happy that our season has been a success."
How it's remembered, though, will depend on what happens Monday.
"We've got one more game," Lamb said, "to prove to the world that we're the best team in the country."
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