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Marquis Teague of Kentucky tries to get by Russ Smith (2) of Louisville n the NCAA Tournament semifinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Saturday, March 31, 2012. (Harry E. Walker/MCT)
Sunday, April 1, 2012

Kentucky rallies past Louisville, on to finals

NEW ORLEANS – Kentucky wound up right where it expected to be all along.

Even if it took a little work to get there.

Anthony Davis and top-seeded Kentucky will play for the national title Monday night after finally putting away pesky Louisville 69-61 in the Final Four on Saturday night. It will be Kentucky’s first appearance in the title game since winning a seventh NCAA crown back in 1998. The Wildcats (37-2) will face the winner of Kansas-Ohio State.

As the final seconds ticked down, Davis screamed at the crowd and pointed to the court as if to say, “This is our house!”

Yes, yes it is.

With Davis, everybody’s player of the year, leading a star-studded roster, Kentucky was the top seed in the tournament and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets when the whole tournament was done. And coach John Calipari wouldn’t let his young players consider anything else, saying repeatedly this was “just another game.”

But playing in-state rival Louisville (30-10) is never “just another game,” and the Cardinals made Kentucky work deep into the second half to grind this victory out.

Bigger, bulkier and with Davis having a wider wingspan than some small airplanes, the Wildcats looked like playground bullies as they pushed Louisville around on their way to a 13-point lead early in the second half.

But the Cardinals know a thing about rallies after coming from 11 points down to beat Florida in last weekend’s West Regional final, and they sure made Kentucky sweat.

Russ Smith made back-to-back buckets to start a 15-3 run, and Peyton Siva capped it with a 3-pointer from NBA range that tied the game at 49 with 9:11 to play. But Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played just 23 minutes because of foul trouble, made back-to-back buckets to give the Wildcats some breathing room.

After Siva made a pair of free throws, Terrence Jones scored on a jumper and Darius Miller drilled a 3 – only Kentucky’s second of the game – to give the Wildcats control for good.

Just to make sure Louisville didn’t get any wild notions about another late comeback, Kidd-Gilchrist threw down a monstrous dunk with 1:05 to play that had Kentucky fans on their feet and assistant coaches from Kansas and Ohio State scrambling to try and find a way to stop this juggernaut.

Kentucky shot a dazzling 57 percent – yes, that’s right – with Davis leading the way. He missed just one of his eight shots and finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. Miller added 13 points, and Doron Lamb had 10. Kidd-Gilchrist had nine, all in the second half.

Miller made the most of his moment. Freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer did the same in his cameo.

Two guys who would likely start for any other team in the nation are bench players at Kentucky. Miller scored 13 points, Wiltjer added five and both snuffed out the Cardinals’ momentum at key points with their play on both ends of the floor.

Wiltjer was among the nation’s top 20 recruits last year, but is largely overshadowed by Kentucky’s fantastic freshman starters: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Miller had started 69 games over his previous two seasons, but willingly went to the bench to make room for Kidd-Gilchrist.

While Kentucky’s freshmen and two sophomore starters get the spotlight, Miller and Wiltjer both provided key minutes as the Wildcats advanced to the national championship game for the first time since winning it all in 1998.

“It’s great stuff. I’m proud of this team. They’re coming together,” coach John Calipari said. “They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville did today, and they’ve held their own, so I’m proud of them.”

At moments when the Cardinals appeared poised to pounce, Miller or Wiltjer shot them down.

Miller, the closest thing to a hometown kid after growing up 65 miles from Lexington in Maysville, Ky., is often called the sixth starter by Calipari. Much like his role in the second half of games all season, he produced just when the Wildcats needed him.

With Kentucky leading 37-32, the 6-foot-9 Miller hit a jumper, then stripped Chane Behanan on consecutive plays that led to points and put Kentucky ahead 43-32. After the Cardinals rallied back and tied it, Miller was a major contributor in an 11-2 run that put Kentucky ahead to stay with a 3-pointer off a pass from Teague and a pair of free throws after his strong move to the basket against Kyle Kuric.

Wiltjer’s brief appearance proved productive, too. The 6-foot-9 forward from Portland, Ore., played all 8 of his minutes before the break and made a pair of key plays after Louisville scored five consecutive points to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 31-28.

Teague found Wiltjer for a 3-pointer, then Wiltjer stole the ball from Chris Smith on the ensuing possession. Despite being teased as the slowest of the quick ‘Cats, Wiltjer pushed the play and ended up finding Doron Lamb, who was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give Kentucky a 35-28 halftime lead.

That would be it for Wiltjer, but that would be plenty to prove just how effective Kentucky’s bench can be.