football

Coveted NCAA title within reach for Wildcats

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NEWORLEANS-TerrenceJoneswantedit.
WhentheKentuckyforwardtalkedtocoachJohnCaliparilastspringaboutwhetherhe'djumptotheNBAorreturnforhissophomoreseason,anationalchampionshipringwasattheheartofthediscussion.
JoneshadhelpedUKreachtheFinalFourasafreshman.TheCatshadcomeupshortinanationalsemifinallosstoConnecticut,andJones-aprojectedfirst-roundpick-wantedsomethingmore.
"Wehadagreatjourney,butIjustwantedtotakeitonestepfurther,"JonessaidSundayattheSuperdome."Itold(Calipari)Iwantedtogetbetterandhelphimwinanationalchampionship."
OnMonday,Jones,CalipariandtherestoftheWildcats(37-2)willgettheirshotwhentheytakeonKansas(32-6)intheNCAAchampionshipgame.
ForKentucky,it'satitletargetedlastsummer,whentheWildcatsfirstcametogetherasacollectionofextraordinarilytalentedindividuals.FortheJayhawks,it'sagoalthatgraduallygrewrealisticasarebuildingyearturnedintosomethingmore.
"Throughoutthiswholeseason,we'veallbeentalkingaboutwinningachampionshipandbringingnumbereightbacktoKentucky,"UKguardDoronLambsaid."We'refinallyhere.It'sexcitingtobehere,onthebigstage,inthelastgameofthetournament."
*****
MichaelKidd-Gilchristdoesn'tneedit,butLambdoes.
Kidd-Gilchristhascomeupshortbefore.AsahighschoolseniorinNewJerseylastyear,heledhisSt.Patrickteamtothebrinkofastatechampionshiponlytocomeupshort.ItwasthefirstlossofSt.Pat'sseason.ItwasthelastgameofKidd-Gilchrist'shighschoolcareer.
Kidd-GilchristhasbecometheheartofthisKentuckyteam.Arelentlessdefenderandrebounder,he'sdevelopedaknackforcomingupbiginthemostcriticalgames.ThebiggestonetipsoffMondaynight,andKidd-Gilchristisexcitedforit.
Ascloseasheistoanothertitle-asbadlyashewantsit-Kidd-Gilchristknowsthathecandowithout.
"Ilovetheseguys(ontheteam),andtheylovemeback,"Kidd-Gilchristsaid."It'sgoingtobealotofmemorieswehavetogether.It'sbeenafunyearforallofus,andit'stheendoftheroadhere.DoIneedachampionship?No.Whateverhappens,happenstomorrow."
Lambhascomeupshort,too,onabiggerstage.
LikeJones,hewasontheKentuckyteamthatlosttoConnecticutlastyear.Lambhad13pointsinthatgame,butitwasn'tenoughtoovercometheHuskies.
NowLambhasasecondshot.Hedoesn'twanttomissagain.
"Ineedit,"Lambsaid."I'mrighthere,sowhynottrytowinitall?"
Thismightbehislastchance.ThesharpshootingLambisn'tashighlyregardedanNBAprospectassomeofhisteammates,butheconsideredenteringthedraftlastseason,andhe'slikelyatleasttoexploreitagain.
Evenifhedoesn't,heknowsthisishislastshotataringwiththisroster.
"It'sgoingtobetoughtolosetheseguysonmyteam,"Lambsaid."Ihadalotoffunthroughoutthiswholeseason,winingalotofclosegamesandwinningbiggames.I'mlookingforwardtowinningthiswholething."
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MarquisTeaguewouldfeelincompletewithoutit.
Kentucky'sfreshmanpointguardarrivedwitharepasahigh-flyingscorer,butoverthecourseofaseasonhasturnedintosomethingmore.He'sablender,anengineer.
Andthoughhe'stheCats'coachonthefloor,hesometimesdepartsfromCalipari'sdirection.Thecoachhaspreachedaplay-the-next-gameapproach,butTeaguesayshisteamalwayshasseenthebigpicture.Thatstartedinthesummerandneverreallychanged.
"WehavesevenstartersonthisteamwhoalldecidedfromDayOneweweregoingtoplaytogether,beunselfishandtrytotakethisthingasfaraswepossiblycould,"Teaguesaid."Wefeellikewedidagreatjobofthatallyear."
Butthejob'snotdone.NotthewayTeagueseesit.ThemanwhodrivestheUKoffensewantstocrossthefinishlinefirstonMonday.
"CoachCaltellsuswhetherwewinorlose,wehadagreatyear,"Teaugesaid."Butattheendoftheday,wewanttowinachampionship."
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DariusMillerwillsticktothepartylineaboutit.
NocurrentCathasenduredtheupsanddownsthatMillerhas.TheseniorplayedinanNITundercoachBillyGillispieasafreshman.He'swaitedpatientlywhilefutureNBAlotterypickscameintoandoutoftheprogram.
Hewantsatitletocloseouthiscareer,Lambsaid.ButCaliparisaystheCatsaren'ttothinkthatway,andMillerisnothingifnotadutifulsoldier.
"LikeCoachsaid,we'rejusttryingtoplaybasketballrightnow,"Millersaid."We'rejusttryingtohavefunwithitall.That'swhatwe'vebeentakingalltournament.We'relookingatitasthenextgame.
"We'renottryingtohypeituptoomuchoranythinglikethat.We'retryingtoplaybasketball.We'rehavingfunwitheverythingrightnow."
MillerisaKentuckykid.Heknowswhatthegamemeanstothestate.HeknowswhatawinwouldmeanforCalipari.Pushhimonthesubjectandhe'llatleastadmitexcitement.
ButhisvaluetoateamofyoungWildcatsisinhissteadyhand.Evenontheeveofhisbiggestcollegegame,Millerkeepsanevenkeel.
Still,he'sbeenwaitingalongtime.He'sready.
"We'reallblessed,honoredtobeapartofsomethinglikethis,"Millersaid."Wefeellikewe'veallworkedextremelyhardtogettothispoint.Rightnow,we'rejustenjoyingitandhavingfunwithitall.Wecan'twaittoplaythelastgame."
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ThetrophiesAnthonyDavishaspaleincomparisontoit.
The6-foot-10freshmanhasmorehardwarethanaHomeDepot,havingcollectedPlayeroftheYeartrophiesherefromtheAssociatedPress,theUnitedStatesBasketballWritersAssociation,theJohnWoodenAwardand,onSunday,theNaismithTrophy.
Davisdidn'tsetouttowinanyofthem.
"It'sgreattowinawardsandeverything,buteveryone'sdreamistotrytowinanationalchampionship,"Davissaid.
Formuchoftheseason,Daviswasinatwo-wayracewithKansas'ThomasRobinsonforthoseindividualhonors.OnMonday,they'llcompeteforthenationalchampionship,thoughit'sunlikelythey'llguardeachothermuch.
Davis,ashot-blockingsensationwhose180blocksarethreeshyofbreakingtheNCAAfreshmanrecord,ismorelikelytobematchedagainsttheJayhawks'ownshot-blockingexpert,JeffWithey.
Still,heandRobinsonarecompetingforateamprize.Daviswantsitbadly.Buthe'llhavefondmemoriesofthisseasonwithorwithoutit.
TheChicagonativeblossomedintoasuperstar.Histrademarkunibrowbecameafixtureont-shirtsandsunglassesandlicenseplates.HeemergedasavirtuallocktobetheNo.1pickinJune'sNBADraft.
Evenasthebreakoutstar,Davishasviewedhimselfasoneoftheguysonthisjourney.It'salmostover.
"Everygame,weplaylikeit'sourlast,andthat'swhywecomeoutwithsomuchintensity,"Davissaid."Weknowthisteam'snevergoingtobetogetheragain,andwewanttocherisheverymoment."
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Calipariistryingnottothinkaboutit.
Thecoachhasbeenherebefore,facingthesameopponent.In2008,heledMemphistotheNCAAtitlegame,onlytocomeupshortinanovertimethrilleragainstSelfandKansas.
Hislegacylacksanationaltitle.Thismaybehisbestchanceyetatgrabbingone.Andyet,Caliparifiguresitwon'tbehislast.Heinsists-whetherornotyouchoosetobelievehim-thathe'slargelyunconcernedwiththeno-titlemonkeythatrestsonhisback.
Ifhemaintainswhathecallshis"players-firstprogram,"ifhecontinuestorecruitanddevelopthebestplayers,theneventually,hefiguresthey'll"drag(theprogram)wherewewanttogo."
"Whetherit'sMondayorsomeothertime,Ibelieveitwillhappen,"Caliparisaid."Maybeitwon't."
Calipariseeshislegacyassecure.Heinsistsit'saboutseeinghisplayerssucceedintheNBAandelsewhere.He'sadamantthathedoesn'tneedatitleforvalidation.
"I'vebeenblessed,"Caliparisaid."Ifithappens,itdoes.Isweartoyou.Yeah,youknow,itwouldbenice.Butmyfriendsandfamilyarepraying(foratitle).I'mnot.IfIkeepdoingrightbythekids,goodthingswillhappenforallofus."
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BigBlueNationishungryforit.
It'sbeen14yearssincetheWildcatslastplayedforatitle.TubbySmithcoachedthemtoanNCAAchampionshiponaMarchnightwhenKidd-Gilchristwasnotyet5yearsold.
FansriotedinLexingtononSaturdayaftertheWildcatsbeatLouisvilletoadvancetoMonday'stitlegame.Somecelebratedpeacefully.Afewoverturnedcarsandsetfires.
"Thatshowsyouhowmuchtheyloveit,"Teaguesaid.
Allseason,Kentuckyplayerssay,fanshaveapproachedthem-atdinner,oncampus,atthemall-anddelivereddifferentversionsofthesamemessage.
BringhomeNo.8.
"WejustwanttogooutthereandtrytowinthewholethingforthestateofKentucky,"Lambsaid.
Allseasonlong,theWildcatshavebeeninpursuit.
OnMonday,theycangrabit.
MoreFinalFourfromRivals.com
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The game: Calipari, Self discuss 2008 title game matchupClick Kansas: Ready for title game rematch with KentuckyClick Here to view this Link.Here to view this Link.
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