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NEW ORLEANS — After spending most of month insisting their NCAA Tournament games were nothing special, UK players finally found something to make them change their mind: a national championship.
The Wildcats used a strong rebounding advantage early to open an 18-point first-half lead and held off a late Kansas rally to preserve a 67-59 win to earn the program’s eighth national championship.
“I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “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.”
As for Calipari’s assertion before the game that the national championship was just another game, and the Wildcats would treat it like any other contest, one of his freshman superstars had a simple counter following the win.
“I don’t buy that at all, not no more,” said freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. “I used to, but not no more.”
UK out-rebounded Kansas 25-14 during the first 20 minutes and went on a 6-0 and 7-0 run to take a 41-27 lead into the locker room.
Sophomore guard Doron Lamb scored 12 points in the half, and Kidd-Gilchrist added 11 points. Freshman forward Anthony Davis did not score in the half but grabbed nine rebounds, tallied four assists and blocked three shots.
“(I was) really excited about how we started the game,” Calipari said. “Our first half — the last couple minutes of the half weren’t real good — but these guys for two days were in a great frame of mind. They had an unbelievable shoot-around today. We kept talking the same way: This is a basketball game, it’s a basketball game, just do what we do.”
The Wildcats came out cold to start the second half, missing eight of their first 10 shots, allowing Kansas to pull as close as five points. UK made five of six free throws in the final 1:11 to preserve the win.
“I pulled the reins back a little bit and tried to get them going again, and they did fine and made plays,” Calipari said.
Lamb finished with a team-high 22 points, including back-to-back three pointers to extend the UK lead to 16 with just more than 10 minutes remaining after Kansas had cut the lead to 10 for the first time since early in the first half.
“At the shoot-around when I watched him, I said he’d get 30 tonight,” Calipari said. “I’m a little disappointed he only got 22. I exaggerated, I said 25.
“He is as good a guard when his motor is moving as any guard in the country.”
Freshman point guard Marquis Teague finished with 14 points, including a three at the 2:50 mark to extend UK’s lead to 10 and two free throws in the final minute to help seal the victory.
Davis struggled with his shot for most of the game — finishing at 1-10 from the field — but contributed in almost every other category with 16 rebounds, six blocks and five assists to go with six points.
“At halftime, I knew he didn’t have a point,” Calipari said. “Before he left the gym, the locker room, I said, ‘Listen to me, don’t you now go out there and try to score. If you have opportunities, score the ball. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. You’re the best player in the building, so don’t worry.”
Davis said he made a conscious decision to work on other aspects of his game when he realized his shot wasn’t falling.
“It’s not hard to take a backseat, especially with playing with a group of great guys,” he said. “All these guys could play.
“I knew I was struggling. So I told them, ‘I’m going to defend and rebound, you all make all the points. That’s what they did tonight.”
Davis and his teammates helped UK bring home its eight national championship in program history while winning a school-record 38 games.
After treating their NCAA Tournament run like a business trip, the UK players were finally ready to celebrate Monday.
“It was just a joy to win a national championship, especially as a freshman with this team that we have,” Davis said. “We have a great team. We all go out there, play hard, defend. When the buzzer went off and we have more points…it was just a great moment.”
“I really can’t explain it or put it into words,” said senior guard Darius Miller. “All the hard work that we put in this year, the sacrifices that people have made on this team means a lot, especially with these guys. We’ve grown as brothers. We’ve had a lot of fun with this. I can’t really put into words how it feels.”
The Wildcats will likely face a large amount of roster turnover following the season — Calipari said he wants this to be the first team with six NBA first-round picks — but they will always have this one moment to share, their coach said.
“They’ll have a big picture in the Craft Center of their national championship team,” Calipari said. “They can walk (their children) up, show them: ‘This was me. I was skinny then, I know, but that’s what I looked like. It’s for the ages now. It’s the eighth national title.”