NEW ORLEANS - Bragging rights in the Bluegrass State are mighty nice.
Kentucky has its sights set higher.
Anthony Davis and top-seeded Kentucky are right where they planned to be all along, playing for the national title after finally putting away pesky Louisville 69-61 in the Final Four on Saturday night.
"I have a team that's had teams come at them all year," coach John Calipari said, "and they responded again today."
It will be Kentucky's first appearance in the title game since winning a seventh NCAA crown back in 1998 and it gives Calipari another shot at the championship that has eluded him. The Wildcats (37-2) will face No. 2 seed Kansas, a 64-62 winner over Ohio State in the second semifinal.
As the final seconds ticked down, Davis pointed to the court and screamed twice, "This is my stage!"
Yes, yes, it is.
With a star-studded roster that includes at least three, maybe as many as five NBA lottery picks, Kentucky was the top seed in the tournament and the heavy favorite to cut down the nets when the whole tournament was done. And 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 that, and the Cardinals made Kentucky work deep into the second half to grind this victory out.
Louisville outrebounded Kentucky 40-33, including a whopping 19-6 advantage on the offensive glass - the sole reason the Cardinals were able to make a game of this.
"To tell you the truth, I haven't always liked some of the Kentucky teams. I'm not going to lie to you," said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who counts as something of an expert after spending eight years in Lexington and the last 11 with the Cardinals. "But I really like this team a lot because of their attitude and the way they play.
"I'll certainly be rooting for them hard to bring the trophy back to Kentucky. ... They're a great group of guys, doing a tremendous job."
So tremendous it led to a thawing, however briefly, in the frosty relationship between Calipari and Pitino. When the two shook hands after the game, Pitino congratulated Calipari and told him he'd be rooting for the Wildcats on Monday night.
"I think that's neat," Calipari said. "When I was at UMass, I can remember hugging him and telling him, `I'm happy for you and I really want you to win the national title.' He did the same to me tonight, so I think it's kind of neat."
Calipari had taken another phenom-laden roster to the Final Four last year, only to see them come unglued against eventual national champion Connecticut. The Wildcats said all week they weren't going to let the same thing happen this time, and it showed in their workmanlike effort. No matter how close Louisville got, the Cardinals were never able to control the game. When they made a run, Kentucky found a way to stop it. When one of the Wildcats ran into foul trouble, the others picked him up.
Kentucky played so hard Davis went flying off the court twice, sailing all the way onto media row once.
"They made runs, and we made our runs. That's what coach always says," said Terrence Jones, who finished with six points and seven rebounds. "We never get rattled."
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, 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.
"They were the better team today," Siva said.
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, and let his play speak for itself, not showing any emotion until those closing seconds of the game.
"Anthony Davis is just the No.1 player in the draft," Pitino said of the 19-year-old freshman, who has won just about every player of the year award there is. "When you're playing against Bill Russell on the pro level, you realize why the Celtics won 11 world championships."
Miller added 13 points, and Doron