By Jerry Tipton/The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS _ With archrival Louisville largely succeeding in keeping it close and turning up the pressure, Kentucky proved its championship mettle Saturday. Now, the Wildcats have only to actually win the NCAA Tournament championship Monday night.
Kentucky outlasted Louisville, 69-61, in the semifinals. As U of L intended, it wasn’t easy, but UK was up to the task.
“The expectation of the staff: You have to win it,” U of L Coach Rick Pitino said Friday of the pressure his dominant UK team of 1996 faced, and by inference the current Cats. “It is a lot of pressure. But it’s good pressure because you have the goods to deliver.”
Kentucky, which set a school record with a 37th victory, had to win it in the final nine minutes. As had been the case all season, the Cats made the necessary clutch plays.
Anthony Davis tied DeMarcus Cousins’ school freshman record for double-doubles. 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 added 13 points, Doron Lamb 10 and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist nine.
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 representing 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 Gorgui Dieng.
Kentucky, which used 60-percent shooting to lead the final 18:41 of the half, built its margin to as much as 10 points on four occasions. The Cats made their first four shots, zipping to an 8-2 lead and prompting a U of L timeout with 17:54 left.
Kidd-Gilchrist, who torched Louisville with 24 points and 19 rebounds in the regular-season game, exited with his second foul at the 13:47 mark. That was one of three charges called on the Cats in the first half.
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 Darius Miller.
The Cards got no closer, but Louisville had Kentucky’s attention.
When Louisville fouled with 2:21 left, but UK only got to take the ball out, Calipari turned to his assistants and said, “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, 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 put UK ahead 43-32, prompting a U of L timeout 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 keyed the counter-surge as the Cardinals outrebounded UK 15-4 before the second TV timeout of the second half.
Put-back dunks by Dieng and Wayne Blackshear reduced Kentucky’s lead to 46-42 with 11:26 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.
Back-to-back baskets by 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.