NEW ORLEANS — "BLUE TOGETHER."
Those were the words written on the grease-board John Calipari carried out with him to the floor of the NCAA Tournament national championship game Monday night at the Superdome.
Six core players, two words, one shot.
One shot to get it right.
Kentucky got it right.
By doing it right.
Kentucky 67, Kansas 59.
In the biggest game of the season, the Cats accomplished the biggest goal of the season by doing what they had done all season. This gifted team of amazing individual talent worked together, played together and shared together in a collaborative effort to win a championship.
Monday night, Anthony Davis scored all of six points and won tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. Doron Lamb pumped in 22 points, and added three assists. Terrence Jones blocked two shots. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist defended with all his might. Marquis Teague, the point guard, scored 14 points. Darius Miller, the senior, steadied the ship.
"The Road Ends Here" said the signs all over New Orleans. For this team, the road began in Lexington last summer when an ensemble cast first came together to create excellence.
They descended on campus from sea to shining sea and places in between. One kid (Lamb) from New York City. One kid (Jones) from Portland, Ore. One kid (Davis) from Chicago. One kid (Teague) from Indianapolis. One kid (Kidd-Gilchrist) from New Jersey. One kid (Miller) from Maysville, Kentucky.
Differing backgrounds, same goal. NBA-bound, yes. But championship-bound, first.
"We want to win a title," said Davis and Lamb and Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones and Teague and Miller at different points in the season.
Soon, egos blended into parts of equal importance. Individuality became indivisible. Star power synthesized into something special.
You could see it in Madison Square Garden when they blew away from Kansas in the second half in just the second game of the year. You could see it in the way they defeated a veteran and No. 1 North Carolina team in early December, the way they bounced back from that one-point loss at Indiana, beating Louisville, zipping through conference play undefeated.
Opponents used various styles to try to beat these Cats. Some walked. Others ran. Some played rough. Others went finesse. Some tried to pound the paint. Others bombed away from outside. All failed to stop the blue machine.
There was pressure all season, of course, but especially here in NOLA. There was nothing easy in the Big Easy. Not when Louisville was your first hurdle. Not when a tough, disciplined, never-say-die Kansas awaited in the finals.
First half, the Cats showed their firepower. A Lamb three-pointer ended an 11-2 run and Kentucky led 34-19. It was 41-23 Cats with 1:04 left in the first half, then 41-27 at the intermission buzzer.
All without Davis, the national player of the year, scoring a point.
You knew Bill Self's team would not quit, and it did not. Inside the final four minutes, the Jayhawks sliced the margin to seven, then five at 62-57. For a brief second you had a flashback to 2008 when John Calipari and Memphis lost a nine-point lead with two minutes left and lost the title to Kansas and Self.
But then, unlike in 2008, Davis hit a free throw. Then with 53.9 seconds left, Teague hit two more, and the lead was eight.
And banner No. 8 was won.
"I don't think we lost it," Self said afterward. "I think they won it."
It's no secret these are short-timers. The purists may not like it, but we don't live in a pure world. We live in the real world. And chances are, we aren't going back. You can pine for the days when teams grew together over four years. These modern days, they must grow as one in one. One season. One shot. Make it count.
That's what they did, and when the final buzzer sounded, Calipari turned and hugged his assistants and grinned.
For once, he was speechless.
The 53-year-old veteran of four national semifinals and two title games had said it didn't matter if he won his first championship or not, it was no big deal, but you know it sure felt like a big deal.
Calipari is the one who put this team together, who molded it, directed it, guided it, taught it most importantly how to play the game the right way.
Calipari used the word drag this year, it's a favorite of his, that at first he felt like he was dragging this team forward, but in the end "carry" was the better word.
These players carried each other — to the title.
For the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, an eighth national title was based on six core players, one goal and two words.