NEW ORLEANS — Anthony Davis made every shot he needed to hit and collected nearly every loose ball that was his for the taking. He glided up and down the floor, nimble enough to be a 6-foot-9 point guard, if only John Calipari would have asked.
On the biggest stage of his young career it took the best player in college basketball nearly 30 minutes until he gave Calipari a soft-spoken request. The freshman sensation called for the ball down low with a NCAA title game berth on the line and delivered in a way that only he could.
Davis’ 18-point, 14-rebound performance was exactly what Kentucky needed when the Wildcats weren’t particularly sharp. The leading single-season shot blocker in Kentucky history added five more, and his one-handed dunk with 1:08 to play sealed the Wildcats’ 69-61 victory against rival Louisville.
“I just kept going, kind of like in Space Jam,” Davis said to freshman teammate Marquis Teague as the two shared a light-hearted postgame moment on the back of a golf cart outside the locker room.
The Wildcats (37-2) will meet the Kansas Jayhawks Monday night in a championship game between the winningest programs in college basketball history. Beneath the stands, away from the jubilation and the student section that repeatedly bowed in his direction, Davis acted as if the semifinal was just another game.
He was giddy talking with his teammates about what was said during huddles, and laughed about shots his teammates forced and the way Calipari would give them an earful during a timeout.
There was nothing fictitious about the consistently high level Davis continues to achieve. Kentucky is one win away from claiming an eighth national championship, a title that was expected to be theirs since well before the beginning of March. Davis wouldn’t make any guarantees about cutting down the net Monday night, but as the final buzzer sounded he threw the ball in the air and soaked in the moment.
“I said, ‘This is my stage. We’re from Kentucky. We’re built for this,’ ” Davis recalled in the interview area. Calipari turned his head, startled by a rare bold statement by his soft-spoken center.
“We go hard in practice,” Davis said. “We go out there to have fun. The emotions, I’m just glad to be here and in the national championship.”
Calling for the ball and making a bold statement is something that would be expected on a daily basis by someone with national player of the year status. While it was rare that Davis did so, his consistent play throughout the season leaves few questions in opponents’ minds.
“Anthony Davis is the No.1 player picked in the draft,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 World Championships. When you see this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good.”
Cardinals center Gorgui Dieng couldn’t maintain inside position on Davis or get a hand on the freshman’s shots. The matchup that was supposed to be the decisive factor in the game took nearly a half to play out.
Teague took advantage of Dieng’s struggle with Davis, and drove through the open lane for several layups. Davis then started calling for the ball. Even so, he attempted just eight shots, a number that left Calipari pleased with his team’s balanced attack. Davis made seven of his attempts.
“The greatest thing about him is his teammates make him better and he makes his teammates better,” Calipari said. “It was kind of like how he’s played all year. … He defers to his team.”