NEW ORLEANS – Pressure?
Pressure wore a bright orange jersey Saturday night. It flashed a full-court press that would not relent and a grit that would not succumb.
Win 36 of the season’s first 38 games and you’ll be asked about this pressure. Romp through a conference slate without losing a single game and you’ll hear of it. Enter the NCAA tournament an overwhelming favorite, slide through the first two weekends with four consecutive double-digit wins and it’ll await you on the final weekend of the college basketball season.
Sometimes, though, pressure is no match for the talent and togetherness of the nation’s finest basketball team.
Before a raucous Superdome crowd in New Orleans Saturday evening, the burdens accompanying the presumptive NCAA title favorite met the Kentucky Wildcats. It came in the form of the Louisville Cardinals, a valiant bunch that threw one rally punch after another at their intrastate rival.
Pressure? The ever-cool Cats responded each time.
There was the arcing alley-oop throwdown from All-America center Anthony Davis. There was the swipe and finish from the smooth senior, Darius Miller. There was the 3-point answer to a Cardinal run from the ever-efficient seventh man, Kyle Wiltjer.
“We’re from Kentucky,” Davis said appropriately after the 69-61 victory. “We’re built for this.”
Now, they reap the reward: a spot in Monday’s national title tilt with Kansas.
Panic from the Wildcats on this night was nonexistent. Confidence ran deep. A 37-2 record and the top overall seed in the tournament yields such.
“We’ve been successful in those situations throughout the whole year,” Miller said. “I don’t have any doubt. This is what we’ve been reaching for. At the end of this game, we have a chance to win a national championship. That’s been our goal from Day 1.”
The Cardinals offered a worthy upset bid –- by pressing relentlessly throughout the contest, they forced the Wildcat guards to cough up 14 turnovers. By keeping their foot on the gas, Louisville blitzed UK with a number of second-half runs, none more worrisome than a burst midway through that knotted the game at 49.
No matter. Head coach John Calipari huddled his precocious team together and told them to forget about the possibility of losing.
“Just play to win,” he said.
They nodded. Then they executed.
Ten minutes and eight seconds later, the Wildcats were eight-point winners. Now they are one victory shy of the program’s eighth national championship.
“I’m proud of this team,” Calipari said afterwards. “They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville’s today and they’ve held their own.”
Shot after shot, punch after punch. Paced by a well-oiled attack that featured seven scorers, UK put on full display what it has done all season: When you mix superior talent with unwavering unselfishness, you’re going to be a difficult opponent to beat.
When the dust settled, the Wildcats were left standing, their foundation very much intact.
“They’re not afraid of the big moments and the pressures that go along with it,” Louisville guard Kyle Kuric said of the Wildcats. “They’re a very confident group. They never seemed rattled.”
For the second time in three months, Louisville learned the hard way.
To beat the Cats, on this evening, Rick Pitino’s club would’ve had to play perfect.
“You’re going to have to play great offense, great defense and you have got to bring your A-plus game,” Pitino said.
Kentucky rolls on to the final night of the college basketball calendar. Their approach to Monday’s title game will be the same as it was Saturday, the same it was on the practice floor in November.
“We’re not changing how we’re playing,” Calipari said. “We’re playing to win. We’re an attacking team. That’s what we are. I don’t want them to change. They haven’t changed all year.”
That’s a welcomed mantra for a program rooted in so much history. In Lexington, there are national championship seasons. Then there is every other year.
See you Monday night.