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John Clay: Wildcats, Cardinals turn Kentucky into basketball nirvana

By John Clay, McClatchy Newspapers –

ATLANTA — Not even Bourbon Street will know what hit it.

Welcome to what promises to be the wildest, craziest, most hyped, most exciting, most nerve-wracking and sleepless six days leading up to the biggest, most-anticipated sporting event in the history of our little commonwealth.

For a state that lives for basketball, this is a dream and a nightmare all at the same time.

This is Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Final Four for the first time.

This is the top-dog Cats, the NCAA Tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, winners of the South Regional by beating Baylor 82-70 on Sunday, versus the underdog Cards, No. 4 seed and surprise 72-68 West Regional winner over Florida on Saturday, squaring off in the Big Easy for a berth in the national championship game.

This is something that comes along once in, well, never.

It’s UK versus U of L, the state’s two biggest rivals on the sport’s biggest stage.

It’s John Caliapri and Rick Pitino, former coaching friends, now, well, current coaching competitors.

It’s one passionately insane fan base against another passionately insane fan base, that happens to reside within the same borders.

“It’s basketball,” said Calipari on Sunday as if this were a mere sporting event.

No, it’s Kentucky and Louisville basketball.

Oh, UK and U of L have played in the NCAA Tournament before, in the 1959 Mideast Regional semifinals (Louisville won), in the 1983 Mideast Regional finals (Louisville won) and in the 1984 Mideast second round (Kentucky won).

They’ve never met in the Final Four, however, though they came close twice.

In 1986, Louisville beat Auburn to win the West Regional, but Kentucky lost to LSU in the finals of the Mideast Regional.

In 1975, the two actually came within a whisker of playing for the national championship when Kentucky beat Syracuse in the national semifinal in San Diego, then Louisville lost a heartbreaker to UCLA in the second game that day.

Now, finally, everything has fallen into place.

Louisville shrugged off its late-season struggles to become the tournament’s hot team, winning the Big East Tournament title then knocking off No. 1 seed Michigan State in the West semifinal before rallying from a 11-point second-half deficit to clip Florida in the finals.

Kentucky has taken a more dominant path, consensus No. 1 in the polls, a 36-2 team deemed the Big Dance favorite the moment they announced the draw Selection Sunday.

The Cats gave no reason for anyone to think any differently this weekend in the Georgia Dome.

They sprinted past Indiana 102-90 in a track meet of a semifinal on Friday night. They freshened up and roared to a 42-22 halftime lead on No. 3 seed Baylor, messed around a little in the second half, but still cut down the nets after a 12-point win.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 19 points to earn MVP honors. Terrence Jones had the best one-point half of his life in the first 20 minutes, dishing six assists, grabbing five rebounds, blocking three shots and making two steals.

There was an uh-oh moment in the second half when freshman center and national player of the year Anthony Davis banged knees with a Baylor Bear and was writhing on the floor in pain. But he returned to the game and pronounced himself fine.

“I’m not going to miss the next game,” Davis deadpanned.

Nor will anyone from Paducah to Paintsville, even if post-game Saturday, Kentucky’s players were trying to shrug off the rematch with a “just another game” mantra that no one was buying.

A day earlier in Phoenix, Pitino couldn’t help but toss a verbal salvo at Big Brother by saying Kentucky fans “would have nervous breakdown if they lose to us” and that they would have to “raise the fences on the bridges.”

“I don’t know what that means,” responded Mitch Barnhart, but the UK athletics director did add, “I think it’s great for the state.”

Treated with shared respect and pride, it will be insanely great for the commonwealth as it makes its way to Louisiana for that 6:09 p.m. tipoff in the Superdome.

Be ready, Bourbon Street.

And the last one to leave Kentucky, turn out the lights.

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