NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky’s defense was so good it overcame its own offense.
The Wildcats were considered the best defensive team in college basketball this season and their 67-59 victory over Kansas on Monday night confirmed that as they got to leave the Superdome with the school’s eighth national championship trophy.
Kansas came into the championship game averaging 73.9 points per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the field.
Kentucky, with freshman sensation Anthony Davis dominating inside, didn’t let the Jayhawks get near those numbers. The Wildcats held them to 35.5 percent shooting (22 of 62), a figure even better than the 37.4 percent they allowed to lead the nation.
Now comes the really impressive part. Kentucky’s defense was so good it allowed the Wildcats to overcome 26.9 percent shooting in the second half. They made seven field goals in 26 shots in the second half as their once-comfortable 15-point lead with just over 5 minutes to play dwindled to 62-57 with 1:37 left.
“Second half I will tell you that we missed a few shots,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after getting to hoist the championship trophy for the first time. “I pulled the reins back a little bit and tried to get them going again, and they did fine and made plays.”
For every good play on the offensive end of the court, the Wildcats made quite a few on defense.
The 6-foot-10 Davis, only the second freshman to be selected national Player of the Year, was the key to most of those.
He struggled on offense finishing with six points on 1-of-10 shooting. How good was his defense? He had 16 rebounds and tied the championship game record with six blocked shots. He was selected Most Outstanding Player. That award usually goes to a player who lights it up on the scoreboard, not the guy with just six points.
“He was terrific,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He just impacts the game so much with his length, and he’s so quick. ... For a guy to have six points, he did control the paint there for a stretch without question.”
When a team is making just over one-quarter of its shots there is no question there has to be some serious defense being played to avoid becoming the team that allowed the biggest comeback in championship game history.
That record of overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit still belongs to Kentucky against Utah in 1998, the last time the Wildcats won it all.
The comfortable 15-point lead was almost gone. The pro-Kentucky crowd of 70,913 was getting uneasy as each possession came up empty. Kansas, a team that had trailed by double figures in three of its five tournament wins, was starting to get that look. The same look Calipari had seen in 2008 when his Memphis team saw a nine-point lead with 2 minutes left in regulation evaporate on the way to an overtime loss to Kansas.
This Kentucky team had an answer few teams can provide. Great defense.
“We huddled up, and at that moment we just wanted to get stops,” said Doron Lamb, who led Kentucky with 22 points. “Told ourselves we got to get stops to win the game. At the end of the game, we got stops.”
Terrence Jones told the same story.
“That was pretty much it,” he said. “We just huddled up and said we wanted to get stops; that this was the time to do it. We got them, and we just executed on offense.”
Davis, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, came into the game with 180 blocks. Besides the six he had Monday night to match the record set by Joakim Noah of Florida in 2006, he also altered several others. None of those was bigger than what he did with 3:22 left.
Kansas was within 59-52, and the Jayhawks were on the break after a missed 3-pointer by Lamb. Elijah Johnson was ahead of the field and on his way to making it a five-point game when Davis came out of nowhere and forced him into a traveling call that was followed 30 seconds later by a 3-pointer by Marquis Teague that made it a 10-point game.
“I knew I was struggling,” Davis said of his offense, “so I told them, I’m going to defend and rebound, you make all the points. That’s what they did tonight.”
And it was enough to overcome a woeful offensive performance over the final 20 minutes.
“We guarded in the second half about as well as we could,” Self said.
So did Kentucky. Only the Wildcats did it in the first half and the second. Kansas All-America Thomas Robinson had 18 points on 6-for-17 shooting. No Jayhawks player shot better than 50 percent.
It was another stellar defensive effort from a team that stops everybody. You don’t match the record for wins in a season with 38 without doing that.
“This team deserves all the accolades that they’ve been getting,” Calipari said. “And what I wanted them to show today is that we were not just a talented team, we were a defensive team.”