NEW ORLEANS — Kansas spent much of the NCAA Tournament crawling out of holes. But when the Jayhawks were on the verge of doing the same thing in Monday night’s national championship game against Kentucky, the Wildcats whacked them on their noggins.
It was a valiant effort by KU, but hints of one of the Jayhawks’ vaunted second-half comebacks never fully materialized and Kentucky, as almost everyone expected, raised the championship trophy. The Wildcats did so just minutes after Kansas junior Thomas Robinson collapsed to the floor in disappointment after KU’s 67-59 loss.
The game followed the same script that most of the Jayhawks’ NCAA games have followed: A lackluster, if not awful, first half, followed by inspired defense that led to some second-half rallies.
But you can’t continue to tempt fate, especially a fate as powerful as that guiding Kentucky, where “one and done” was advanced as part of college basketball’s language.
The Wildcats are young, all right. And some of that youth showed in the second half, when a lid fell on Kentucky’s basket. But UK made three huge three-pointers, two by Doron Lamb as Kansas was first poking its head out, and then the biggest of the night by Marquis Teague with 2:47 left after KU had cut the lead to 59-52.
Two of those treys came after costly KU turnovers. The effort the Jayhawks put out wasn’t matched by the execution.
Even after back-to-back three-pointers by Lamb built Kentucky’s lead to 16 with 10:01 to play, the Jayhawks refused to tap out. Even when the Wildcats still led by 15 with 5:09 to go, Kansas fought.
It was a proud, if undermanned, bunch.
KU got as close as five points, 62-57, with 1:37 left.
A Taylor basket made it a six-point game with 40 seconds left.
But with a chance to cut even deeper, KU’s Elijah Johnson was called for traveling when Kentucky giant Anthony Davis, the most dominant player on the floor despite a 1-for-10 shooting game, got a hand up just as Johnson was ready to fire up a three-pointer.
Instead, he bounced the ball with his feet in the air, drawing a traveling call that sent Kansas packing.
Since both teams won semifinal games Saturday, the talk was that Kansas didn’t stand a chance. It seemed like a ridiculous notion, given the Jayhawks’ experience, pedigree and coach, Bill Self. I thought, in fact, that the Jayhawks could stand their ground in three of the five matchups within the starting lineups.
But Kentucky was superb in the first half, dominating in every facet. KU was under a Wildcats barrage of great shooting, tremendous transition basketball and dominant defense.
Self, who implored his team to do what it does, was also hoping Kentucky wouldn’t do what it does.
Instead, the Wildcats played a great first half, even without an offensive contribution from Davis.
Other Kentucky players, especially guards Lamb and Teague, picked up the slack.
KU had good guard matchups, but it was close to a draw. Lamb and Teague combined for 36 points on 12-of-26 shooting while KU’s guards, Taylor and Johnson, had 32 points and made 13 of 30 shots.
Kentucky won in the paint, even though Robinson had 18 points and 17 rebounds. He had to bust his tail for everything, though, because Davis was omnipresent.
Examine the line for the 6-10 freshman: 6 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, six blocks, three steals.
“He was terrific,’’ Self said of the Kentucky star. “The one basket he made was one of the biggest baskets of the game, that face-up 18-footer on the baseline. Seeing him in person late in the season, as opposed to early in the season, you can tell how much he’s improved.’’
Why did KU shoot 35.5 percent? Mostly because of Davis and his B-52 arm span. Why were the Jayhawks unable to capitalize on close to 20 shot attempts within three feet of the basket? Blame it on the guy who blocks shots the way a Praying Mantis swallows insects.
Kentucky finally won a title for John Calipari, although he continued to say what he’s been saying for weeks.
“This was about them,’’ the Kentucky coach said. “It’s not about me. I just hope you guys stop asking me questions so I can get back to the hotel.’’
The Wildcats have three freshman starters and two sophomores. Teams with that makeup aren’t supposed to win national championships, but Calipari plucks his players from the highest level of high school basketball. So even though Kansas had a big edge in experience, it was Kentucky’s talent that won the day.
Several UK players will undoubtedly be moving on now, replaced by a new group of blue-chippers next season. It’s a much-derided formula by those who think college basketball should stand for more, but Calipari is playing by the rules. And until the NCAA and NBA can figure out a better system, college coaches are being hypocritical by criticizing the way Kentucky operates.
Give Calipari credit for getting such a young team to play with such intelligence and unselfishness. From the first sight of the Wildcats in November, it was obvious they were playing on another level.
Kansas had a tremendous opportunity Monday night to reach that level. The Jayhawks couldn’t have hoped for more than to get a shot at Kentucky on this big stage.
“We’ve been fighting all year,’’ Taylor said. “We’re hard-working guys, man. We were right there, right there. But they’re a great team.’’
Kentucky is the winningest college basketball program in history. Kansas is No. 2. The margin is one game more now than it was.