Kentucky freshman sensation Anthony Davis dribbled out the final seconds, heaved the basketball toward the 630-foot high ceiling of the Superdome and shouted something for all of the college basketball world to hear.
“This is my stage!” Davis yelled in the glow of Kentucky’s 69-61 victory over instate rival Louisville on Saturday night in the opening semifinal of the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.
Davis, the Wildcats’ 6-10 wunderkind, scored 18 points on seven-of-eight shooting, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked five shots in 39 minutes as the top-seeded Wildcats, 37-2, advanced to Monday night’s championship game against Kansas.
What couldn’t be measured statistically were all the missed Louisville shots Davis altered and influenced in a 24-for-69 shooting night by the Cardinals. His presence even forced the Cardinals to miss several point-blank dunks.
“Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “The difference was, quite frankly, just Anthony Davis (who will be) the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 world championships. When you see this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good. Not that their other players aren’t, but he’s so much of a factor.”
Indeed, Kentucky is more than just Davis, who on Friday was named national Player of the year. Kentucky is the only team in college basketball with six players averaging in double figures, and several made big contributions to Kentucky’s victory besides Davis.
Kentucky played all but the first six minutes of the game without freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrest, who had 24 points with 19 rebounds in the Wildcats’ regular-season meeting with Louisville but failed to score in the first half after sitting down with two early fouls.
With fourth-seeded Louisville threatening to pull off the upset and tying the score 49-49 with 9:07 to play, Kidd-Gilchrist took over the game by taking it to the rim. After missing two free throws, he broke the tie with a layup off a pass from Davis with 8:42 to play.
Then Kidd-Gilchrist added a 360-degree slam dunk on the next possession, giving the Wildcats a 53-49 lead and electrifying the large contingent of blue-clad Kentucky fans in the crowd.
“I was just being aggressive all the time I was on the floor,” said Kidd-Gilchrest, who scored nine points. “I saw the lane it was right there. The 360 was my second bucket, so it felt good.”
Kidd-Gilchrist’s performance energized the rest of his teammates.
“Mike is a huge part of the team,” said senior forward Darius Miller. “Us missing him the first half really hurt us. You saw how he dominated the game. He plays with high intensity. We feed off that. We always need him in the game. Just his presence helps us out.”
Louisville, 30-10, made one more run at the Wildcats, drawing to within 53-51 with 7:34 to play. Kentucky answered as sophomore Terrence Jones muscled in for a basket; Miller hit a three-pointer and two free throws for a 60-51 lead, and the Wildcats finished up with three slam dunks— a one-handed windmill by Davis, and two more jams by Kidd-Gilchrist, leading to Davis’ shouting out his feelings about beating Louisville.
“We are from Kentucky,” Davis said. “We were built for this. We go hard in practice we go out there to have fun.”
That’s why Davis demanded the ball from his teammates, went after every Louisville shooter who got near the lane, and twice crashed into press tables and end-zone seats while chasing loose balls.
“I got to do it for my team,” Davis said. “That’s all the effort I knew I could make plays in the post. “My team needs me to play well, just like I need my team to play well. I think that’s what we did tonight.”