NEW ORLEANS — Sitting on a stool on the raised court at the Superdome — above his Kentucky team and the rest of his coaches — John Calipari looked like an artist surveying a masterpiece.
That was at tip-off, as Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng jumped at midcourt in Saturday’s first national semifinal.
Calipari didn’t use that stool much the rest of the way. This was no masterpiece.
But at this stage they don’t have to be, as his team held on for a 69-61 win against the archrival Cardinals. He probably even forgot that the stool was there. Especially as the Wildcats’ 13-point lead early in the second half dwindled to nothing.
With 9:12 left in the game, Peyton Siva’s 3-pointer tied things at 49-49. And then things started to click. The Wildcats flicked on the switch.
Only 26 seconds later, Kentucky had the lead again when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist drove with ease to the rim for two of his nine points. It began a 20-12 run to finish the game by the Wildcats.
“I thought we dug deep,” Calipari said. “You have to give Louisville credit, they offensive rebounded against us better than any team we’ve played this year. They never stopped playing, got up into our bodies, created turnovers and gave themselves a chance to win.”
It finally was the swipe of the brush that made this look like some of those other Kentucky games this season — the ones that looked like works of art.
“They really don’t play like freshmen,” Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said. “They just have maturity in just the way they play. They carry themselves with confidence. They aren’t shy or afraid of big moments. They always step up and come through.”
For a while, the signs didn’t look great despite a lead. Kentucky committed 14 turnovers after averaging only 10.5 in its first four NCAA tournament games. And with each one, they seemed to lead to Louisville baskets in the second half — keeping the Cards alive.
Missed free-throws were also an issue for the top team in the land. The Cats went just 11-for-20 from the free-throw line. Uncharacteristic for a team that shot 72.7 percent from the line this season. Kidd-Gilchrist finished just 1-for-4 from there — a 75.5 percent free-throw shooter.
A team that usually looks like a well-oiled machine in every aspect of the game of the game didn’t until that late run. When the dunks and high-flying alley-oops returned. When Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis put the Cardinals away for good.
This Wildcats team has taken everyone’s best shot all year. And they weather any drought, slump or funk better than any team in the nation. That’s what happens when you have so many options to put the rock in the hoop.
A team that entered the game as the only team in the nation with six players averaging in double digits only had three reach that plateau on Saturday.
“It’s great stuff,” Calipari said. “I’m proud of this team; they’re coming together. They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville’s and they’ve held their own. I’m so proud of them.”
It’s the sign of a great team. Shut down one, and someone else will beat you. In New Orleans against their biggest rivals, on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, the Wildcats did it as a collective group.
“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.”
And that alone is good enough for Calipari to put in a frame. Especially when it means he’s a win away from a national championship.