March 25, 2012
ATLANTA (AP) - Kentucky is taking its highlight show back to the Big Easy.
With an NBA-like display from a young team filled with future pros, top-seeded Wildcats advanced to the Final Four for the second year in a row with a 82-70 win over Baylor in the South Regional final on Sunday.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 19 points, Anthony Davis added 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Terrence Jones dazzled in all the overlooked areas, leading the Wildcats (36-2) to a Bluegrass showdown with rival Louisville in the national semifinals next Saturday at New Orleans.
For all the hoopla sure to surround that game in the basketball-crazed state, Kentucky won't consider the season a success unless it wins two more games -- culminating in a national title.
"This team is playing for you and playing for each other," coach John Calipari told the predominantly blue-clad crowd when it was over. "Let's see if we can keep this thing rolling a bit."
This group sure has the look of a champion, shaking off an early blow by the Bears (30-8) -- a very good team with a daring fashion sense that was simply no match for Calipari's latest group of Fab Freshmen. Kentucky took control with an early 16-0 run and led by 20 at halftime.
They might as well have cut down the nets right then.
Calipari, in his third season at Kentucky, just keeps recruiting the best high school players in the land, molds them into a top team, then sends most of `em on to the NBA before they've barely had time to find their way to class.
Then he starts the whole process over again.
Two years ago, John Wall led Kentucky to the regional final. Last season, Brandon Knight helped guide the Wildcats to the Final Four. Now, with those guys in the NBA and Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis stopping off for what will likely be their only season in Lexington, Big Blue has a shot at what those last two teams failed to do -- bringing Kentucky its first national title since 1998.
But all the talk about Calipari's one-and-done tactics, he's getting plenty of contributions from those who hung around beyond their freshmen year. Take Jones, a sophomore forward who passed up the draft. He scored just one point in the opening half, but his fingerprints were all over Kentucky's dominating performance: nine rebounds, six assists, three blocks and two steals and -- most in the first 10 minutes.
Then there's Darius Miller, one of only two seniors on the roster. He gave up his starting role to Kidd-Gilchrist in this one -- Kentucky essentially has six starters -- but four points, two assists and two steals to the first-half blowout.
At one point, Kidd-Gilchrist had as many points as Baylor's entire team: 17 apiece. Kentucky led 42-22 at the break and Baylor never got any closer than 10 points the rest of the way.
The Wildcats left New Orleans earlier this month disappointed with a loss in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Quincy Acy led Baylor with 22 points.
With Baylor's Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III cheering on the Bears from the stands, Acy tried to send a message early on that Baylor would not be intimidated by the Wildcats.
With Jones in the clear and going in for a fastbreak layup, the 235-pound Acy came up from behind, took a whack at the ball but mainly just crashed into the Kentucky player, sending him flying into the Baylor cheerleaders along the baseline. Jones was OK, and the officials doled out a flagrant foul on Acy after looking at the replay.
Jones made one of the free throws, Kentucky missed a jumper and the Bears, seemingly inspired by Acy's bravado, ripped off an 8-0 run that led Calipari to call a quick timeout. He already had yanked Doron Lamb from the game for trying to make the highlight reels rather than taking a layup. The sophomore guard passed up a clear path to the basket, instead opting for a lob pass to the trailing Davis.
The big man missed the dunk, hanging on the rim as Baylor grabbed the rebound and took off the other way for a basket.
After Quincy Miller hit an uncontested 3-pointer from the top of the lane to give Baylor a 10-5 lead, Calipari lashed into his young team -- and, boy, did they respond.
Sixteen consecutive points, an NBA-like display of defensive dominance and easy baskets that sent the Georgia Dome, and the predominantly blue-clad crowd, into a frenzy.
Cat-Lanta, indeed. Too bad RG3 couldn't suit up for the Bears, who couldn't wear the neon-green home uniforms they had specially made for the tournament. As the lower-seeded team, they switched to another special uniform, this one black and camouflage with neon trim.
Turns out, blue was the dominant color.
Jones displayed his all-around game, coming up with three steals and swatting away a shot by 5-foot-10 Pierre Jackson like this was a game between men and boys. Kentucky fed off his defense, running the court at every opportunity for layup after layup. Kidd-Gilchrist had three of `em, along with a slam by Davis that made up for the one he missed.
Darius Miller hit a jumper, and even little-used freshman Kyle Wiltjer knocked down a 3-pointer, pumping his fist and smiling as he trotted back down the court.
There were plenty of smiles from the folks in blue, though Kentucky did get a scare early in the second half when Davis went down with an injured left knee.
The 6-foot-10 freshman was driving to the basket when he banged knees with Baylor's Perry Jones III, going down hard along the baseline. A hush fell over the massive stadium as Davis, writhing in pain, grabbed at his knee. Finally, he limped to the bench, but it was clear the injury wasn't too serious when the trainers kept flexing the leg, then rubbed it with an ointment to ease the pain.
After just a few minutes, Davis got up and headed to the scorer's table, checking back into the game.
The Kentucky fans broke into a huge cheer of relief.
There's still work to do in the Big Easy.