Kentucky wins Bluegrass State battle over Louisville

NEW ORLEANS — Cancel that code blue alert. Kentucky fans, you can exhale now.

Relax and enjoy the next 10 minutes before preparing for the season’s last nervous-wreck ramp-up.

The disaster-scenario defeat to arch-rival Louisville in Saturday’s NCAA national semifinals was, narrowly, averted.

It wasn’t easy or awe-inspiring, but top-seeded Kentucky survived rival Louisville’s late rush and advanced to Monday night’s title game with a 69-61 win at the Superdome.

Kentucky will play Kansas.

“I thought we dug deep,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said.

For a while, it looked like a deep six.

Kentucky had trouble putting the game away even after leading by 13 with 16 minutes left.

Louisville doesn’t scare easily. Last week, the Cardinals trailed Florida by 11 with eight minutes left and rallied to win the West Regional.

Louisville chipped away Saturday and wasn’t scared at all when guard Peyton Siva’s three-pointer tied the game at 49-all with 9:11 left.

“They never stopped playing, got up into our bodies, created turnovers and gave themselves a chance to win,” Calipari said of Louisville.

Kentucky, though, showed the poise of a champion and now gets the chance to win championship No. 8. One more Kentucky banner would leave the school only three behind UCLA’s record of 11.

Kentucky almost put out a missing persons report on freshman star forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who scored 24 points in the regular-season meeting against Louisville.

He played only six first-half minutes because of foul trouble and was held scoreless until making a free throw with 10:08 left.

He perked up after that, scoring four key baskets down the stretch.

Center Anthony Davis, the Wooden Award winner and AP player of the year, finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds and capped his day with a one-handed dunk off a lob pass from Kidd-Gilchrist.

“He’s a great player,” Louisville guard Chris Smith said of Davis. “He can change every shot.”

Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, who coached Kentucky to the 1996 title, said it wasn’t fair to compare the two squads.

“To tell you the truth, I haven’t always liked some of the Kentucky teams,” Pitino said. “I’m not going to lie to you. But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play.”

Kentucky (37-2) looked the championship part soon after singer Monica finished the national anthem.

The Wildcats raced to a 8-2 start in what appeared to be a glorified layup drill, and upped the lead to 10 at 16-6 on Terrence Jones’ slam dunk.

It seemed Kentucky could name the score at that point, so why were the Wildcats only leading by seven at the half?

Kentucky has faced the barrage of questions all week: How would the Wildcats react under pressure?

Would doubt start creeping in?

Would the Kentucky rim look like the circumference of a coffee cup?

Two years ago, in the regional finals, a roster of future Kentucky stars including John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins missed 28 of 32 three-point attempts in a shocking loss to West Virginia.

After some nervous moments, though, Kentucky proved why it is still the team to beat in this tournament.

Kentucky players carried the weight of a myopic basketball world into Saturday’s semifinal. The rhetoric between the two rival schools reached heightened levels, even though not one starter from either team hailed from Kentucky.

Calipari has become college basketball’s best importer, plucking Davis out of Chicago and Kidd-Gilchrist from New Jersey. Doron Lamb talks with a New York accent (Queens), Terrence Jones sends mail home to Oregon, while Marquis Teague is from Indianapolis.

Players rotate out of Kentucky to the pros so fast some might not know of the impressive heritage: seven national titles and 52 NCAA appearances. Kentucky entered the game with an overall record of 2,088-649-1.

Louisville, which finished the year 30-10, was led by Siva’s 11 points. Center Gorgui Dieng had seven points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.

Kentucky fans celebrated into the New Orleans night as the school notched victory No. 2,089.

“Our fans travel a long way,” Davis said. “We want to go out here, give them a show and give them what they want.”

Saturday was great, but it means nothing without Monday.

Go beyond the scoreboard

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