ATLANTA, Ga. – Baylor coach Scott Drew said his goal coming into Sunday’s South Region final against the Kentucky Wildcats was to surrender “no dunks.”
“I think that was out the window about four seconds into the game,” Drew said wryly after the Wildcats throttled Drew’s Bears 82-70 to advance to a Final Four clash Saturday in New Orleans against West Region winner Louisville.
Baylor came into the game billed as the one team that could match up athletically with Kentucky. And maybe that’s so. But what a lot of people didn’t ask was this: Do the Bears have the same quality of basketball player as the Wildcats?
And the answer to that is clearly no.
“I think in coaching, you get done playing a team, and the first thing you think is, are they what you thought? Drew said. “This team (Kentucky) is actually better than I thought. I don’t think we played our best game, but they are better than I thought. We definitely haven’t played a better team than them all year, and I don’t know if we have in the last couple of years. When we lost to (Duke, the eventual national champion) two years ago, Duke was very good. But this Kentucky team is better, in my opinion.”
The Wildcats dazzled the Bears early Sunday, erasing a 10-5 deficit with a 16-0 run that was a clinic in both athleticism and execution. Kentucky led 21-10 with 11:32 left in the first half, but the air was already leaking badly out of the Baylor bubble.
“I just told them, ‘We’ve got to step on the gas, guys,’” Calipari said of his first time out, down by five. “I didn’t want them to build too much confidence. And I told them we’ll do it with defense. Just get out there and guard people and make easy plays.”
Kentucky went on to lead 42-22 at the half, and that was game, set and match, although freshman center Anthony Davis bumped knees hard with Baylor’s Perry Jones III early in the second half and didn’t look comfortable the rest of the way.
“My knee is fine,” insisted Davis, who finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, six blocked shots and two steals in 32 minutes. “I just bumped knees with Perry Jones and it started hurting real bad. But I knew my team needed me to play. I wasn’t going to sit out, especially with a trip to the Final Four.”
Asked for a word to describe how Kentucky turned a 10-5 deficit into a 20-point halftime lead, Kentucky sophomore forward Terrence Jones replied: “I’d just say aggressive. I just think we got real aggressive on offense and defense. We mentally locked down on defense, and that led to fast breaks on offense.”
“We want to go out and play harder than the other team, and make sure they know they can’t beat us,” added sophomore guard Doron Lamb. “We go out at the beginning of the game and be aggressive on offense and defense, and that’s what we did today.”
Drew said he knew his Bears had to at least slow down Kentucky in transition, and the Bears’ poor shooting in the first half proved to be fatal to that cause. Kentucky made this game a track meet by taking Baylor’s missed shots and running out.
Baylor shot just 32 percent in the first half to 55.2 percent for the Wildcats. The Bears shot 39.1 percent for the game to 53.3 percent for UK.
“I think the first half we rushed and took some shots that we shouldn’t have taken,” Drew said. “When you shoot 32 percent, you’re giving up a lot of chances for fast breaks. I mean, going in, that’s what we knew we had to stop. And when you don’t execute on the offensive end, and you have nine (first half) turnovers, you’re going to give up up transition.”
Kentucky did not have any concerns over execution in the first half.
“I think it was a mixture of us executing the way that we wanted to, and the way our game plan was set up, and just how hard we were playing,” said UK senior forward Darius Miller. “Especially on defense. I think we did a great job defensively in the first half.”
The only suspense after halftime was the length of Kentucky’s final margin of victory, as the Wildcats improved to 36-2.
“A team like Kentucky, you can’t let them get up 20,” said Drew, whose team finished 30-8. “Coach Cal does too good a job managing the game.”
Had Davis not been hurt, the Wildcats probably could have named the score. As it was, there was about a 10 minute stretch after Davis went down with 18:38 to go in the game when the Wildcats looked suddenly tentative.
Even when Davis came back in the game only some 90 seconds later after he went down, he didn’t look the same. And Baylor was suddenly able to get the ball inside in a way it could not earlier.
Still, the closest the Bears were able to get was 78-68 with 49 seconds left in the game. So if there is any crisis for Kentucky about Davis, we’ll see it Saturday.
“I have no control of that,” Calipari said of Davis’ injury. “He popped up pretty good. It (knee) may be dinged up a little but, but he’ll get treatment, believe me.”
As has been the case for the Wildcats all season long, the heroes were many. Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was unbelievable for the second straight game, tallying 19 points and five rebounds. That followed a 24-point, 10-rebound showing Friday night in the 102-90 win over Indiana.
Kidd-Gilchrist was named the South Region Most Valuable Player, joining teammates Davis and Lamb on that unit, along with Christian Watford of Indiana and senior center Quincy Acy of Baylor.
Acy led the Bears Sunday with 22 points and eight rebounds.
“I saw a mismatch, and I just took advantage,” Kidd-Gilchrist said of Sunday’s game. “It was just there.”
“Cal has done an unbelievable job with the youth he has,” Drew said. “I can tell you why Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are projected one and two in the (NBA) draft after watching them today. Gilchrist is a man child. He’s got Quincy’s toughness and heart, and he’s a guard.”
“We really feed off his energy, offensively and defensively,” Miller said of Kidd-Gilchrist. “He does a great job getting us going. He is very verbal. He gets everybody where they need to be. And he has really stepped up. He’s really started to play like a leader. He’s not playing like a freshman anymore.”
Lamb finished with 14 points for the Wildcats, Jones added 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists, three blocked shots and two steals. Marquis Teague and Miller had eight points each, and Kyle Wiltjer had three points.
Week full of hype
This week promises to be a Kentucky-Louisville hype-fest for the ages with the two teams meeting for the second time this season (UK won 69-62 on Dec. 31) and for the first time ever in the Final Four.
And you can be assured that the Wildcats were asked plenty about it in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s win over Baylor.
But Calipari and his players tried to deflect the talk.
“Everybody expects it (UK-U of L) to be a great game,” Miller said. “Right now we’re just trying to enjoy this win. We’re happy to go to the Final Four.”
“They are a very talented team, and they play and they compete,” Calipari said of Louisville. “But like my kids say, I’m going to enjoy this. I’m not worried about who we’re playing. I’m just happy we’re still playing.”
Said Kidd-Gilchrist: “It’s a dream come true for me and this whole team.”