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March 31, 2012

Davis leads Cats past Cards, into title game

NEW ORLEANS - After a game he controlled, Anthony Davis was ready to cut loose.

So the Kentucky freshman celebrated his team's 69-61 win against Louisville at the Final Four on Saturday by heaving the ball and hollering to the Superdome ceiling. What exactly he said is a mystery ("I can't repeat it," Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said).

So maybe it was an expletive, though Davis later said he shouted "This is my stage!" Some thought he said "state."

On Saturday, Davis owned them both, guiding the Wildcats to a rivalry win and an appearance in Monday's NCAA championship game.

"We're from Kentucky," Davis said after an 18-point, 14-rebound five-blocked shot game. "We're built for this."

And Davis - as he proved against the Cardinals - is a unique construct.

He dominated a one-on-one matchup with Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, controlled the paint at both ends of the floor and proved to the be the difference in a Dream Game as hard-fought as any contest the Cats (37-2) played all season.

Davis became the first player since Kansas' Danny Manning in 1988 to have at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in a Final Four game.

"When you're playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 World Championships," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "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."

Under the biggest spotlight of a college career that's likely nearing its end, Davis was dominant. He showed off sweeping hook shots and high-flying dunks. He swatted shots. He crashed the boards on a night when the Cardinals outworked the Wildcats there.

"He did what he's done all year," UK coach John Calipari said.

As a result, he and his teammates will play for Kentucky's eighth national championship on Monday against Kansas.

Even with Davis' heroics, getting there wasn't easy.

Louisville (30-10) played the kind of game it had to if it hoped to have a chance at upsetting its rival.

The Cardinals had a 40-33 rebounding advantage against the bigger, more athletic Cats. They had 19 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points. They got Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones in foul trouble and limited them to pedestrian numbers most of the night.

When Kentucky threatened to run away, the Cards kept it close.

"That's the Louisville team, period," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "It's a great coach."

And when Peyton Siva sank a three-pointer with 9:10 to play in the game that tied the score at 49-49, it looked for all the world like the Cats were vulnerable to an upset.

Instead, the Cats roared back with an 11-2 run that gave them the lead to stay.

"I have a team that's had teams come at them all year and they've responded like they did today," Calipari said.

It helps that he has the best player in the country.

"Ant's the player of the year," Kidd-Gilchrist said, and most every organization that presents an award agrees.

On Saturday, Davis added the John Wooden Player of the Year to a list that already includes Player of the Year awards from the United States Basketball Writers Association and the Associated Press, and on Saturday he played up to his trophy case.

"I got to do it for my team…," Davis said. "I knew I could make plays down there. I was asking for the ball. My team needs me to play well just like I need my team to play well. I think that's what we did tonight."

Afterward, Pitino called Davis "as fine a basketball player as there is."

On Saturday - on his biggest stage - he was at his best.

"Every game in the tournament we need him," guard Doron Lamb said. "Today he stepped up. He wanted this game really bad."


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