Final Four, Louisville next after Kentucky eases past Baylor

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 25, 2012 

ATLANTA — Except for freshman sensation Anthony Davis crumbling to the floor and clutching his left knee, Kentucky's advance to this year's Final Four Sunday held little suspense.

The Cats cruised past Baylor 82-70 in the South Regional finals.

"We lost to a Goliath," Baylor guard Brady Heslip said of UK. "They're No. 1 for a reason. They showed it."

Davis, who blocked six shots to break the Southeastern Conference single-season record (170 by Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado in 2008-09 and 2009-10), appeared to sustain a knee injury early in the second half.

Suddenly, being within eight of the NCAA record for blocks in a season by a freshman, not to mention Kentucky's national semifinal game against archrival Louisville, receded in significance.

Davis, who scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, sprawled to the floor after colliding with Baylor's Perry Jones III with 18:38 left in the second half. After several quiet minutes on the floor, Davis made his way to the UK bench where he grimaced as trainer Chris Simmons worked on his knee.

"You just bumped it, right?" said walk-on Sam Malone, who sat next to Davis. "You didn't hurt it."

Davis' nod affirmed Malone's belief that Kentucky could proceed intact to a second straight Final Four.

"As soon as he went down, I saw the other kid holding his knee," Malone said of his suspicion that the players merely bumped knees. "It kind of made sense. I didn't get too scared."

Kentucky (36-2) achieved a 36th victory in a season for only the second time in program history. The Fabulous Five went 36-3 in winning the 1947-48 national championship.

Baylor (30-8) came into the game billed as a threat because of its length and athleticism, particularly when used in a 1-3-1 zone.

But those attributes never materialized as Kentucky sped to transition scores before Baylor could set its defense.

"Impossible to guard in transition," Baylor Coach Scott Drew said of Kentucky. "Impossible."

After a settling-in period, Kentucky used a 33-7 run to build a 40-18 lead in a first half that saw UK ahead 42-22 at intermission. Kentucky scored 13 of its first 30 points on the fast break. The chief beneficiary was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who scored 17 of his team-high 19 points in the first half.

"Just turnovers," Heslip said in explaining Kentucky's smothering first-half dominance. "Turnovers converted into baskets for them at the other end. We weren't taking shots we normally take. We were forcing it, getting into the lane. With those trees in there, you can't really do that."

As an unneeded but welcome bonus, Kentucky's jump shooting made Baylor's half-court set defense irrelevant. During its breakout run (or for a period of about 10 minutes), UK did not miss a jump shot.

Kentucky got either a basket or free-throw attempts on 12 straight trips down court. That efficiency enabled UK to erase its last deficit (10-7) on a Marquis Teague three-pointer and assume a 32-17 lead (a pull-up jumper in the lane by Kidd-Gilchrist).

"They're along the lines of Missouri in terms of transition (offense)," Baylor's Quincy Acy said of the Cats. "Except they're big. That's hard to stop."

Kentucky's defense befuddled Baylor. The Bears made only three of their final 20 shots of the half. Jones III, who is projected high in the various NBA mock drafts, made one of five shots, scoring two points and committing three turnovers in the half.

"It was like we didn't have that fight in us," he said.

The opening minutes promised a competitive game. With Davis missing a dunk and Baylor making four of its first five shots, Kentucky fell behind 10-5.

Barely 12 minutes later, Kentucky led 38-17.

Kentucky got its scare when Davis went down with 18:38 left. As he rose for a shot off a drive, Davis got bumped by Jones III. The contact, though seemingly not extraordinary, knocked Davis off balance and to the floor.

Davis stayed down along the baseline near the basket as Jones got up slowly and went to the Baylor bench under assistance.

"I wasn't concerned," Davis said. "I was just in a lot of pain. I just had to walk it off."

As the trainer worked on Davis, UK Coach John Calipari's bedside manner tended more toward wishful thinking/risk avoidance.

"Coach Cal said, 'Stop playing, get up,'" Davis said with a smile. "I was in real pain."

An assuring round of applause erupted as Davis got off the bench with 17:31 left and walked gingerly to the scorer's table. He re-entered the game with 17:24 left and Kentucky ahead 46-28.

Thereafter, he scored four points, grabbed four rebounds and blocked four shots.

Kentucky led by as much as 23 points early in the second half.

Baylor twice closed within 13, the second time when its three-point shooter, Heslip, made his only trey. It reduced UK's lead to 63-50 with 8:52 left.

A telling moment arrived shortly thereafter. Baylor guard Pierre Jackson, who had been part of eight game-tying or clinching plays earlier this season, missed in the lane. UK's ensuing fast break yielded a driving layup by Kidd-Gilchrist.

Baylor got as close as 78-68 in the final minute.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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