By Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times –
NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky fans almost turned blue Saturday but can exhale now.
The disaster defeat to Louisville in the NCAA tournament semifinals was averted.
It wasn’t easy or awe-inspiring, but top-seeded Kentucky survived arch-rival Louisville’s late electrical rush and advanced to Monday night’s title game with a 69-61 win at the Superdome.
Kentucky will play Kansas or Ohio State.
Kentucky had trouble putting the game away even after leading by 13 with 16 minutes left.
Louisville doesn’t scare easily. Last week, the Cardinal trailed Florida by 11 with eight minutes and rallied to win the West Regional in Phoenix.
Louisville chipped away and wasn’t scared at all when guard Peyton Siva’s three-pointer tied the game at 49-all with 9:11 left.
Kentucky, though, showed the poise of a champion and will play for its eighth NCAA title on Monday night.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who scored 24 points in the first meeting, made his first points Saturday on a free throw with 10:08 left.
He woke up late, though, finished with four key baskets down the stretch.
All-America center Anthony Davis finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds and capped the day with a one-handed slam dunk with 1:09 left.
Kentucky (37-2) was supposed to be the superior team and looked the part from shortly after the time singer Monica finished the national anthem.
The Wildcats raced out 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?
Louisville is plucky team, that’s why, that had not lost since the start of the Big East Tournament.
The questions were being posed all week: Would the pressure be too much for Kentucky? Would doubt start creeping in?
Some people have made the ridiculous claim that this year’s Kentucky team could beat an NBA squad.
Would the rim shrink to 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.
Maybe Kentucky players read the news clippings about the program losing its last three NCAA games to Big East schools.
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 game, even though not one starter hailed from the state.
In fact, no starter from Louisville, either.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari plucked star center Anthony Davis from Chicago. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is from Bruce Springsteen’s home state (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 so fast some might not know the particulars of school lore: the seven national titles and 52 NCAA appearances. Kentucky entered the game with an overall record of 2,088-649-1.
Louisville finished the year 30-10.
Kentucky added victory No. 2,089 to its total.
Of course, it all means anything unless the Wildcats win Monday.