NEW ORLEANS – As it turned out, the game wasn’t over at halftime.
For that matter, Kansas coach Bill Self admitted that 2008 crossed his mind. In that NCAA championship game, his Kansas team rallied to tie Memphis, coached then by John Calipari, before winning in overtime.
And there he was Saturday night, once trailing by 18 points in the first half, but now down nine at the official timeout with 3:51 left and his best player, Thomas Robinson, going to the line for two shots.
“I called the guys back and said to them, ‘Hey, we were down nine with two minutes left in ’08. We’ve got plenty of time,’ ” Self said. “And then Thomas makes those two free throws to cut it to seven and I could be mistaken, but we got a stop.”
He wasn’t mistaken. Kansas had the ball back but subsequently lost it out of bounds. Kentucky came down, was patient as always on offense, worked it to Marquis Teague at the top of the key and he almost casually hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock was winding down.
It made the score 62-55 with 2:50 left and proved to be the winning basket in a 67-59 final.
There was not going to be a repeat of 2008.
“It crossed my mind,” Self admitted, “but we just didn’t have the mojo tonight like we did back then.”
Back then Calipari suffered probably the worst defeat of his career and one that, if nothing else, has prompted the most questions about needing this NCAA title to validate his career. It didn’t take long for that come up after the game.
“You know what it is? I told my wife, I’m glad it’s done,” Calipari said. “Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be and helping young people creating better lives for themselves and their families and better help them prepare for life after basketball. I can get on with that and I don’t have to hear about the drama and just coach now.”
His wife, Ellen, was beaming as her husband took part in cutting down the nets as Kentucky won a national crown for the first time since 1998 and eighth time overall.
“There’s just satisfaction for us because we know how much time and energy and effort he puts into it and the players put into it,” Ellen said. “This is a great thing. This is what you work for all these years.”
She has been married to the coach for 26 years, which includes his Final Four with Massachusetts in 1996 and the one with Memphis, both vacated by the NCAA. But the validation?
“He would say no, because he’s just more satisfied for the players to reach this accomplishment than for him,” Ellen said. “But I feel like this means a lot to him. You’re not going to work all these years. You’re not just coaching to be coaching and get to Final Fours. You’re coaching for that championship.”
“For us as players,” UK sophomore Terrence Jones said, “to play for him, it means a lot just because he gives us so much credit anytime we win and he’ll take all the fault if anything goes wrong. Just to win for him is something special.”
The Wildcats, who finished a Kentucky-best 38 wins (against only two losses), did it with kids. Freshman Anthony Davis, the national player of the year, went just 1 for 10 from the field, not scoring his first field goal with 5:14 left. But even so he was a one-man wrecking crew, registering 16 rebounds with game highs of five assists, six blocks and three steals.
“At halftime I knew he didn’t have a point,” Calipari said. “I said to him, ‘Listen to me, don’t you now go out there and try to score. If you have opportunities go score the ball. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. You were the best player in the building. So don’t worry.’ And so he went out shot the first three balls.”
“I was open,” Davis said.
“Yeah, you were open,” Calipari shot back with a smile. “I know why you were open. You were 1 for 10. They were leaving you open.”
Doron Lamb, a sophomore, led all scorers with 22 points. Another freshman, Teague, scored 14 points. And yet another freshman, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, added 11 points and six rebounds.
“They’ve done a fabulous job of coaching their team. They share, they like each other, they certainly defend,” Self said, before pausing and smiling.
“And they’re playing with pros,” he said. “They’ve done a great job coaching that team and I don’t their staff gets the credit they deserve sometimes because they’re so talented.”
Which is why Kansas was down 39-21 before pulling to 41-27 at halftime.
“We didn’t want to get down 18. Trust me on that,” Self said. “We wanted it to be a one-two-three possession game under five [minutes]. And we thought the pressure would obviously shift on them. We almost got it there.”
Kansas won NCAA titles in 1952, 1988 and 2008, all Leap Years, got no such magic on this night, although 2012 is a Leap Year.
“Right now it’s a bad feeling, being so close after working so hard for four years to get to this one game,” Kansas senior Tyshawn Taylor said after leading the Jayhawks with 19 points.
“Finally we’re here and to come up short. Coach said something to us earlier about if you care so much about something and it doesn’t go your way it’s going to hurt a little bit and that’s what we’re going through right now.”
There was, of course, no pain on the other side.
“Kansas is just a great team,” Davis said. “They defend and play hard. But when the buzzer went off, it was just a great moment.”