NEW ORLEANS — With archrival Louisville largely succeeding in keeping it close and thereby turning up the pressure, Kentucky proved its championship mettle again Saturday. Now, the Cats have only to beat Kansas on Monday night to be champions in name, as well as spirit.
Kentucky outlasted Louisville 69-61 in the NCAA Tournament national semifinals. As U of L intended, it wasn't easy. But UK was up to the task.
"Whoever wins the Kansas-Ohio State game is going to have to play a hell of a game to beat them," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said in tribute to the Cats.
UK, which set a school record with its 37th victory, had to win it in the final nine minutes. Claims of just another opponent aside, Doron Lamb acknowledged that the Cats felt how desperately the Big Blue Nation wanted — needed — this victory.
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"I'm sick of that," he said of UK-U of L. "I'm glad it's over. It was pressure. (UK fans) would have really hated it if we lost to them."
Still, Kentucky did not tremble when Louisville's steady uphill climb crested at 49-49.
"We just needed a lot of things to go right," Pitino said.
Kentucky needed to be Kentucky.
"I have a team that's had (opponents) come at them all year," UK Coach John Calipari said, "and they've responded like they did today."
Louisville set the stage by rallying from a 10-point deficit to tie it at 49 with nine minutes left. Anybody's ball game.
Anthony Davis loomed large in tying DeMarcus Cousins' school freshman record for double-doubles with 20. His 18 points and 14 rebounds led UK. He also blocked five shots to increase his season total to 180, two shy of the NCAA record for a freshman (Hassan Whiteside of Marshall in 2009-10).
Darius Miller's 13 points included a clutch three-pointer down the stretch. Lamb added 10.
Louisville (30-10) was led by Peyton Siva's 11 points. Chane Behanan added 10 points and nine rebounds.
Kentucky led 35-28 at halftime. That represented an effective holding action by Louisville, which teetered on the edge of a first-half knockout.
Louisville made only five of its first 21 shots. That included missed dunks by Behanan and center Gorgui Dieng.
U of L stayed close by outrebounding UK 40-33 for the game and limiting transition play.
Never trailing but never comfortably ahead in the final 39 minutes, Kentucky made its first four shots to zip to an 8-2 lead.
Needing any transition points in a poor-shooting game, Louisville got two when Chris Smith stole Lamb's pass and sped to a fast-break layup. That reduced UK's lead to 26-20 and prompted a timeout with 3:41 left.
Louisville, which made seven of its final 11 shots in the half, got as close as 31-28. Dieng took a behind-the-back pass from Chris Smith and dunked while being fouled by Miller.
The Cards got no closer before halftime, but Louisville had Kentucky's attention.
When U of L fouled with 2:21 left, UK only got to take the ball out, and Calipari turned to his assistants to say, "Are we shooting (the one-and-one) yet?"
No, it was only Louisville's fourth foul, which indicated that the Cards had succeeded in limiting Kentucky's free-throw opportunities. U of L didn't commit a foul until the 9:58 mark. UK made four of five free throws in the first half, a huge difference from the 32-for-43 parade that beat Louisville on New Year's Eve. In that game, the Cats made 17 of 23 foul shots in the first half alone.
Kentucky re-established control early in the second half. Miller led the way, scoring easily on a turnaround over Siva and then stealing Behanan's lazy pass and breezing to a transition dunk. The latter put UK ahead 43-32, prompting a U of L time out with 16:44 left.
The lead grew to as much as 13, and UK matched its first-half free-throw total inside the first eight minutes, but Louisville rallied. Rebounding sparked the counter-surge as the Cardinals outrebounded UK 15-4 in the first eight minutes of the second half.
Put-back dunks by Dieng and Wayne Blackshear reduced Kentucky's lead to 46-42 with 11:23 left.
Siva's first basket — a three-pointer from the top of the key — brought U of L all the way back, tying it at 49. More than nine minutes remained. In that time, Louisville made only four of 15 shots.
Back-to-back baskets by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist steadied UK. On the second, he drove the middle of the lane, spun 360 degrees and slammed home a dunk to put the Cats ahead 53-49.
The margin grew to 60-51 when Miller hit a transition three-pointer and then two free throws after being fouled on a drive. Less than five minutes stood between Kentucky and a date in Monday's championship game.
"I didn't feel any pressure at all," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "None at all."
Nor did he sound concerned with Monday night's championship game.
Of adding to Kentucky's seven national championships, Kidd-Gilchrist told reporters, "No. 8 is on the way."