NEW ORLEANS — Borrowing one of Dick Vitale’s catch phrases, the 2012 Final Four was “Awesome, Baby!”
With the supportive fans from the Big Blue Nation everywhere in this lively downtown, including the French Quarter, during UK’s successful Final Four stay, the Wildcats ended their 14-year drought of the NCAA title as they defeated Kansas 67-59 late Monday night before an announced crowd of 70,913 fans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The victory gave Kentucky’s John Calipari — who already has Hall of Fame numbers as one of the country’s winningest coaches — his first national title as a head coach after 20 years in the college ranks.
He now joins Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith as the UK coaches who have captured at least one NCAA crown.
Calipari is happy and relieved with the national championship win, telling his wife, Ellen, that “I’m glad it’s done.”
And he added, “Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be, helping young people create better lives for themselves and their families, and also helping them prepare for life after basketball.
“I can get on with that. I don’t have to hear the drama. I can just coach now. I don’t have to worry.”
The newly-crowned unselfish Wildcats now join two other national championship squads — UK in 1996 and Indiana in 1976 — as the only teams to go unbeaten in the conference and win the NCAA title.
“We were the best team this season,” Calipari said. “The most efficient team. We shared the ball.”
Sophomore Doron Lamb, who gunned in a game-high 22 points, said capturing the title for Calipari is very special.
“I’m so happy to win it for him,” said Lamb.
Kentucky’s Terrence Jones agreed.
“For us, as players, it means a lot just because he gives us so much credit anytime we win and he’ll take all the fault if anything goes wrong,” Jones commented.
The Wildcats, who finished with an NCAA-record 38 wins in 40 tries, struggled somewhat in the shooting department, finishing with 41.1 per cent from the field, and national player of the year Anthony Davis only hit 1 of 10 baskets. But Lamb minimized the damage with his hot shooting hand.
“Coach Cal told me I’m going to have a big game today,” Lamb said. “(I) had a great shoot-around. I made a lot of shots today and helped my team to win.”
And UK’s defense and rebounding were outstanding. The Wildcats held Kansas (32-7) to a season-low 59 points and blocked 11 shots, including six by Davis, who completed the campaign with the fourth-most single-season blocks in NCAA history with 186.
While 6-10 Davis had a cold-shooting night, the Chicago product still had a significant impact on the contest.
“He rebounded. He had 16 rebounds,” Calipari said. “At halftime, I knew he didn’t have a point. Before he left 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.’ “
That’s not all. Davis also tied his career-high with five assists.
For Calipari, who cut down the nets during the post-game celebration with his team and assistants afterwards, the national title rematch with Kansas Monday night was certainly a lot more memorable than the 2008 championship game when his Memphis team dropped to the Jayhawks.
And the Wildcats, along with the fans, sure had a ball in Big Easy and they will never forget it, either.
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SINCE RETIRING from UK in 1985 with three Final Four trips, including the 1978 national title, it was definitely nice to see ex-Wildcat boss Joe B. Hall getting some recognition during the Final Four in front of national media.
During the halftime of Saturday night’s Kansas-Ohio State national semifinal game, Hall — who will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in November — was introduced to the crowd and received a very nice ovation.
The other newly-elected Hall of Fame members include Patrick Ewing, Earl Monroe, Kentuckian and college basketball promoter Jim Host, among others.
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WHILE MANY WILDCAT faithful aren’t very happy with Pitino for becoming the coach at a rival state school, you have to be pleased to hear the Cardinals mentor say some nice things about UK.
Moments after U of L dropped a 69-61 decision to Kentucky in the national semifinals, ex-Cat boss Rick Pitino made a very classy statement about his former employer.
While Pitino doesn’t like some of the UK teams in the past, the Louisville coach said he would cheer for the Wildcats to win the NCAA title.
“I really like this (UK) team a lot of because of their attitude and the way they play,” said Pitino Saturday night. “Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky, which doesn’t happen very often, to bring home that trophy to the state.”
Pitino, who has sent three different schools to six Final Fours, says a lot of Kentucky and Louisville fans really get along.
“In every society there are people without brains,” he said. “But for those that have brains, they get along. They root for each other. We root for Murray (State), Western (Kentucky). We’re going to root for Kentucky. We like their basketball team and we hope they bring it home to the state.”
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SITTING ON THE PRESS row near the Louisville bench, I watched Pitino and he looked awfully tense even though he has been on college basketball’s biggest stage several times. And it seemed to carry over to the squad in the opening minutes as UK raced to an 8-2 advantage.
“We just played tight,” said Louisville junior guard Peyton Siva.
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FINAL FOUR TIDBITS: Ex-LSU coach Dale Brown, who lives in Baton Rouge, was honored by the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA), receiving this year’s Lifetime Achievement award…..
UK fan and actress Ashley Judd attended the Louisville and Kansas games, sitting on the first row behind the press tables….
On one-and-done players, NCAA President Mark Emmert said he has talked to NBA Commissioner David Stern and others “a number of times” about potentially changing that rule into something like Major League Baseball and NFL have, where the players stay three years in college…..
Political commentator and New Orleans resident James Carville, wearing a cap, sat with Emmert on the official scorer’s table during the Kentucky-Kansas national title matchup. Both Carville and Emmert have LSU connections. Carville holds two degrees from LSU, while Emmert was the chancellor there several years ago……
U of L sophomore center Gorgui Dieng was asked about his team’s locker room emotions after the eight-point setback to Kentucky: “Nobody is sad here. We just understand that we lost to the No. 1 team in the country.”
Jamie H. Vaught, whose syndicated sports column currently appears in Kentucky newspapers, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.