NEW ORLEANS (AP) –– The highlight packages will be full of Anthony Davis’ one-handed jam off an alley-oop pass and a couple of his hook shots — including one with his non-shooting hand — but what got Kentucky to its 11th national championship game was defense.
A lot of defense.
The Wildcats didn’t break the 80-point mark as they did in their first four NCAA tournament games — the first team to do that since Kentucky won its last title in 1998 — but they stopped Louisville whenever they had to in their 69-61 victory Saturday night.
Kentucky (37-2) held the Cardinals to 34.8 percent shooting (24 for 69), well below their season mark of 42.5, but even more importantly, it was below the 37.5 percent the Wildcats allowed all season — a mark that led the nation.
And it was Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman who was the national Player of the Year, leading the way with five of Kentucky’s seven blocked shots while altering several others as he did all season in being named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
The defense was at its best late after Louisville (30-10) had whittled a 13-point deficit to 53-51 with 7:34 to play. The Cardinals missed their next nine shots as Kentucky opened the lead to 60-51 with 4:29 to go.
“We had teams come at us all year like that,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They responded each time the way they did today.”
Despite being outrebounded 40-33, including 19-6 on the offensive end, Kentucky played the defense that had it at No. 1 for 10 weeks this season and earned the Wildcats the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament.
And it was Davis leading the way — and he earned the highest praise a center can receive.
“When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 world championships,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said in comparing Davis to the Boston Celtics great who is considered the best defensive big man of all time.
“When you see this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good. Not that their other players aren’t, but he’s so much of a factor.”
Calipari made it sound like just another game from his phenom, who is expected to be the overall No. 1 pick in the NBA draft if he decides to leave after his freshman season.
“He did what he’s done all year,” Calipari said. “He blocked four, five shots. The greatest thing, though, is that his teammates make him better and he makes his teammates better. That’s how he’s been.”
Davis came into the Final Four with a school-record 175 blocks, a number that already has him fifth on Kentucky’s career list.
It took the Cardinals and Gorgui Dieng, their young center, a while to adjust to what Davis was doing on the defensive end.
“Anthony Davis is very impressive because he alters. His length is incredible,” Pitino said. “Not till the end did Gorgui block him out. That’s what you’ve got to do with him, you’ve got to block him out to keep him away from the basket.”
Davis’ aggressive way inside was what allowed Louisville to get offensive rebounds, but the Cardinals weren’t able to convert into more than 13 second-chance points.
“You can get second-chance opportunities against shot blockers because when he goes, he’s going to leave his man,” Pitino said.
“But then you have to either throw it out and get an easy shot or you have to finish. We didn’t finish inside. We kept missing inside. Sometimes when you go against a shot-blocker, there’s a lot of offensive opportunities to rebound.”
The Wildcats will face Kansas for the national title on Monday night after the Jayhawks rallied from a 13-point deficit to beat Ohio State 64-62.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)