By Dennis Berry
The dust has settled after Kentucky won the eighth national championship in school history. John Calipari finally has the one thing that was missing from his resume. Kentucky fans could finally celebrate after 14 years of waiting.
As I look back on this NCAA Tournament run, I wonder if this the best NCAA Tournament run in Kentucky's storied basketball history. When you look back at who Kentucky defeated along the way to the National Championship, it was a path filled with rivals and oddly connected schools.
Kentucky was the tournament's number one overall seed. Their opening game was against Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers have played Kentucky three times in the NCAA Tournament; the last was a 71-64 Kentucky win in 1986. The last time the two teams played was in 2001 when Western Kentucky beat then fourth ranked Kentucky 64-52 at Rupp Arena.
The Hilltoppers were the only team in this year's NCAA Tournament with a losing record. They had gotten hot at the end of the season and won the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to earn their way in. Then in the play-in game they played Mississippi Valley State - coached by former Kentucky player Sean Woods – and found themselves down 16 points with less than five minutes to play, but went on a 22-5 run to earn the right to face Kentucky.
The Wildcats took advantage of a home crowd at the KFC YUM! Center in Louisville and won 81-66. Terrence Jones scored a game high 22 points to pace Kentucky. The game was not as close at the score made it out to be. This would not be the last time Kentucky would square off with a team from the Commonwealth.
Next up for Kentucky was Iowa State. The Cyclones finished fourth in the Big 12 and there was a storyline between the two schools. That would be with the Cyclones' star player Royce White.
The do-it-all big man almost ended up at Kentucky. He was all set to become a Wildcat, but after a panic attack the day before flying to Lexington to meet Coach Calipari, he never made the flight. Thus, White ended up at Iowa State.
White played well against the Wildcats, scoring 23 points and grabbing nine rebounds. At one point during an Iowa State 14-4 run to tie the game at 42, White had a dunk and then looked at the Iowa State fans that had made the trip and yelled, "I'm the best player."
White, however, should have waited a little bit longer to claim his crown. After the game was tied at 42, Kentucky went on a 20-2 run to blow open the game. Kentucky would win 87-71, led by Marquis Teague with 24 points, and move on to face an old rival in Atlanta.
Kentucky-Indiana is one of the oldest rivalries in college basketball. Over the past few seasons the Hoosiers have not held up their end of it as Tom Crean rebuilt the basketball program. That changed in December when the Hoosiers' Christian Hatford hit a three at the buzzer to give Indiana a 73-72 win over then number one Kentucky. It would be Kentucky's only loss in the regular season and the win that Indiana needed to prove they were back.
Kentucky would get its revenge in the Sweet 16. The game was played at a high pace as both teams looked to push the ball and run at every chance. Unlike other teams Kentucky faced, they were not afraid to run with Kentucky.
Just like the first meeting, Kentucky's Anthony Davis would get in foul trouble in the first half. This time though, his teammates were able to step up when their star center was out of the game. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would lead the way with 24 points. Doron Lamb added 21, Darius Miller had 19, Marquis Teague had 14, and Terrence Jones had 12.
The main difference this time proved to be the shooting. In the first game, Indiana hit 9-15 three point shots. Kentucky shot the ball well, but missed free throws that would close the game out. In the Sweet 16, Indiana shot only 5-18 from behind the arc and Kentucky hit 35-37 free throws. Kentucky would win 102-90 and move on to the Elite Eight for the third straight year.
Waiting for them were the Baylor Bears. This was not the team that was supposed to be facing Kentucky. When the brackets were announced, little were surprised to see Duke as the two seed in Kentucky's bracket. This was the 20th anniversary of the two schools' epic regional final in Philadelphia when Christian Laettner hit the game winner as time expired in perhaps the greatest college basketball game of all-time.
Duke did not make it past the first round, getting upset by Lehigh. So that paved the way for Baylor to make an Elite Eight appearance for the second time in three years. This is the only school that really misses the sizzle of a storyline to Kentucky.
The Bears were looked at as one of those teams that could match up well with the Wildcats. They were long enough and athletic enough to put pressure on Kentucky. In the end, Baylor was not disciplined enough to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats controlled the game and would win 82-70. Anthony Davis would lead the way with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Kentucky was heading back to the Final Four but they were not the only team from the Bluegrass State to make the trip to New Orleans. Arch-rival Louisville had earned their way by coming out of the West Bracket. The Cardinals had won the Big East Tournament and then knocked off West number one seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and then Florida in the Elite Eight.
It was the most talked about game all week leading up to the Final Four. Not only did you have Kentucky and Louisville playing against each other, you also got Rick Pitino versus John Calipari. The pair spent most of the week down-playing their dislike for each other and trying to focus on the game.
While the game might not have lived up to the hype, it was still a battle. Louisville continued to use a full court press to disrupt Kentucky's offense. Louisville was also able to get 16 offensive rebounds to keep the game close, something that many teams were not able to do.
In the end, it was the clutch play of senior Darius Miller, who scored 13 points, and Anthony Davis' 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocks that lead Kentucky to their first title game in 14 years.
Kentucky would again face a rematch from a regular season game. The Kansas Jayhawks had defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes to get another shot at Kentucky. The two schools played back in November in New York with Kentucky winning 75-65.
This would mean a dream National Championship game between the two winningest teams in college basketball history. It would be only the second time the two schools would meet in the NCAA Tournament. This would also be a coaching rematch from the 2008 Championship Game between Calipari and Kansas' Bill Self.
Kentucky would take control of the game early. Kentucky was able to limit the Jayhawks' offense thanks to the stellar defense play of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Kansas's Tayshawn Taylor and Terrence Jones guarding Thomas Robinson. With Jones guarding Robinson, it allowed Anthony Davis to roam freely on defense to block shots and get rebounds.
Kentucky's lead grew to as much as 18 points in the first half. It appeared that Kentucky was going to turn this into a blowout. Kansas, however, was able to cut the lead down to 14 before halftime.
The second half saw both teams trade runs, but any time Kansas got close Kentucky had an answer. It was either Doron Lamb hitting clutch threes, Darius Miller making a jump shot, or Kentucky getting defensive stops.
Kansas would cut the lead to five points with just over a minute to play. That would be as close as they could get. The night, like the season, belonged to Kentucky.
Now the discussion turns to how this team ranks all-time with other Kentucky teams. I would place them second behind the 1996 team. The 1996 team was older and had more depth. The 2012 team would give them a battle, though.
This run to a National Title is not like any before. Sure there was the 1998 title run where Kentucky defeated UCLA in the Sweet 16 and then Duke in the Elite Eight. 1996 was highlighted by defeating Massachusetts – then coached by Calipari – in the Final Four. 1978 gave UK wins over Arkansas and Duke in the Final Four, but neither team was considered rivals back then.
The 2012 title run featured a run through rival schools that Kentucky fans will be able to brag about for a long time.
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