NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) – Top seed Kentucky will face Kansas for the national basketball championship on Monday night after the two storied programs won their NCAA Tournament semi-final games at the Superdome on Saturday.
Kentucky (37-2) took a bold step toward winning its eighth championship by defeating bitter intrastate rival Louisville 69-61, while Kansas (32-6) knocked off Ohio State, 64-62.
“We got a game closer to our dreams, our goal,” said Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis, who led the Wildcats with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots.
“We have to come out here Monday night and perform. We can’t come out lackadaisical. We have to come out with a lot of energy.”
Kansas, looking for a fourth title, last won the championship in 2008 when it needed overtime to defeat a Memphis team coached by John Calipari, who is now at Kentucky.
The Jayhawks trailed 59-56 with just over two minutes left but scored six straight points to take a 62-59 lead and hang on for the dramatic victory.
Louisville overcame a 13-point second-half deficit and tied the score at 49-49 on a three-point bomb by junior guard Peyton Siva with just over nine minutes left.
But Kentucky reserve guard Darius Miller scored five points in an 11-2 surge that gave the Wildcats a 60-51 lead with 4:29 remaining to put the game on ice.
Miller described reaching the national championship as “emotional.”
“We’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point,” he said. “I feel like we’ve all did a great job throughout the whole year. This is what we’ve been reaching for.
“At the end of this game we have a chance to win a national championship. It’s an opportunity that not most people get. Can’t really explain it in words. You have to experience it.”
Kentucky held Louisville to 35 percent shooting but was outrebounded 40-33, including 19-6 on the offensive glass.
“I’m proud of this team,” said Calipari, searching for his first title in his fourth appearance at the Final Four, although two appearances were vacated for the use of an ineligible player.
“They’re coming together. They’re taking on shots and runs like Louisville did today and they’ve held their own. I’m so proud of them.”
The loss, before more than 73,000 at the Superdome, snapped Louisville’s eight-game winning streak that started with their improbable run to the Big East Tournament title.
“There are no moral victories when you’re trying to win a national championship,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “But I couldn’t be prouder. A lot of great teams did not get here.”
In a contest seen by many as a civil war in the state of Kentucky, the Cardinals, who lost to Kentucky 69-62 in December, fired blanks for most of the night but stayed around long enough to make it a game.
Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague are all freshman starters for Kentucky but it is unlikely they will all forego the NBA and return to Lexington next season.
“They really don’t play like freshmen,” said Louisville swingman Kyle Kuric. “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.”
Ohio State led for most of the game but ultimately fell victim to 34 percent shooting from the floor and an off night from its best player, Jared Sullinger, who had just 13 points on five of 19 shooting.
A follow-up jam by William Buford with 9.6 left trimmed the Buckeyes’ deficit to 62-61 with 9.6 seconds left but two free throws by Elijah Taylor hiked the Kansas lead to 64-61 with 8.3 seconds remaining.
A foul shot by guard Aaron Craft cut the lead to two with 2.9 seconds left but his attempt to miss the second shot on purpose failed and the Jayhawks ran out the clock.
Thomas Robinson, who paced Kansas with 19 points, said the Jayhawks, who lost to Kentucky 75-65 back in November, are at their best when they are facing defeat.
“It’s just been our whole thing all year,” he said. “For some reason my team is pretty good when we’re down.”
(Reporting By Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Larry Fine and Nick Mulvenney)