Mark Story: Davis at center of Kentucky's title drive

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 31, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — Basketball fans from Kentucky filled up Bourbon Street late Friday night.

Decked out in Louisville red and Kentucky blue, they yelled and they spelled.

C-A-R-D-S!

Oh yeah, well, C-A-T-S!

By Saturday evening, Kentuckians had made the Big Easy the Big Electric.

The first Final Four matchup ever between Kentucky and Louisville filled the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — a cavernous NFL stadium — to the brim.

After 38:53 seconds of grueling back-and-forth basketball, Anthony Davis did what he's done so many times in his scintillating Kentucky freshman year.

He brought the house down.

And brought Kentucky home.

Catching a deflected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist alley-oop pass, Davis snared it with one hand, appeared to re-adjust the path of his leap in air and cuffed the ball emphatically into the basket.

The dunk brought an explosion of noise from the Big Blue sections of the crowd and gave UK a seven-point lead over the plucky Cards.

"It got tipped," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said later of Kidd-Gilchrist's pass. "Anthony somehow grabbed it one-hand and dunked it, and it basically ended the game."

So it did. Kentucky 69, Louisville 61.

Having dispatched their fiercest rival, UK will have a chance Monday night to claim its eighth NCAA championship and first since 1998.

As it has been so many times this year for the Cats (37-2), the primary difference between victory and defeat was Davis.

The 6-foot-10 Chicago product finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. Even those impressive numbers don't reflect his full impact on the game.

Kentucky survived a determined U of L (30-10) upset bid because the Cardinals could not find the basket. A big part of the U of L offensive problem was the shot-altering impact of Davis.

For the game, Louisville made only 24 of 69 shots. The Cardinals' starting front line combined to go 10-for-27. Penetrating guards Peyton Siva, Chris Smith and Russ Smith went 11-for-37.

"Anthony Davis, he's a great player," Chris Smith said. "He can change every shot."

Said U of L forward Kyle Kuric: "(Davis) just has great length so he's able to alter shots. It's difficult for guards like Peyton and Russ to get a clean look like they usually do."

What made Davis' performance in NOLA on college basketball's grandest stage even more impressive is that he was set up for a comeuppance. The willowy freshman big man spent the days leading up to our state's hoops Armageddon collecting national player of the year awards from, seemingly, every organization in the country except the Daughters of the American Revolution.

He was more than eligible for the basketball version of the Heisman Trophy jinx.

Yet being guarded by another shot blocker, Louisville's 6-11 Gorgui Dieng, Davis showed his ever-expanding offensive weaponry. Repeatedly, he went to a baby hook shot over the long arms of Dieng.

"I've been working on my post moves a lot," Davis said. "They've gotten a lot better since the beginning of the year. I feel very confident now in the post."

Davis did his best work offensively early in the second half. After U of L pulled within 35-31 on a Chris Smith trey to start half two, Davis scored five of Kentucky's points in an 11-3 run that opened up a 46-34 Cats lead.

After U of L, boosted by relentless work on the offensive glass, tied the game at 49, Davis found Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with a nifty pass that led to the dunk that put UK ahead for good.

U of L gave a spirited account of itself. The same Cardinals who were outrebounded 57-31 in Rupp Arena in UK's New Year's Eve victory had a whopping 19 offensive rebounds this time and won the battle of the boards overall 40-33.

Kentucky backers should shudder to think what would have happened had it not been for Davis and his 14 boards.

"That Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said.

As the Superdome game clock ticked down to 0:00, the ball, appropriately enough, ended up in the hands of Davis.

At the end of a basketball game that Kentuckians will talk about forever, as Cats fans exulted and Cards' fans despaired, Davis flung the ball high into the air and screamed, "This is my stage!"

Truer words were never spoken.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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