ATLANTA -- Anthony Davis finally left the game with 33 seconds remaining, and only because he had blood on his lip.
Kentucky was ahead of Baylor, 82-68, at the time.
Davis didn’t want to leave the court. And why would he? Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something that must have been as enjoyable to play as it was to watch?
Davis had suffered a left knee contusion in a collision with Baylor’s Perry Jones III with 18:28 left in the second half and the Wildcats up 44-22. Davis was treated and sent back in, left again, then went back in because he couldn’t get enough of this game.
“The knee is doing fine,’’ said Davis after the Wildcats’ South Regional-clinching 82-70 victory over Baylor on Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
“I just bumped knees with Perry Jones, and it started hurting real bad. But I knew my team needed me to play. I wasn’t going to sit out, especially with a trip to the Final Four, and all of us want to go to the Final Four. So I knew I needed to come in the game and help my team out, so I decided to come in.’’
Davis finished with 18 points, 6 blocks and 11 boards. And the consensus national player of the year was hardly alone in another stellar performance.
This effort by the Wildcats was their best this season -- and that’s quite a statement, considering they lost only one regular-season game to Indiana in December and one to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament championship.
If you watched the way Kentucky flipped a 10-5 deficit into a 20-point lead in a matter of minutes, then you know.
Baylor coach Scott Drew had no clue the Wildcats could turn it on like that in a flash.
“I had no idea they were this good,’’ Drew said as he walked out of the postgame news conference.
“We made one substitution, called a timeout and addressed within the team and said to each other, ‘Let’s go. Let’s do it with defense, we’ve got to guard and let’s put this thing away and be the aggressor and attack. Let’s go.’ It didn’t look good to start the game, did it?’’
Well, Baylor was the aggressor for a few possessions.
Then the Bears committed turnovers on successive possessions and it was on. Boy, was it on.
“I’d say we were just aggressive,’’ said Kentucky’s Terrence Jones. “I just think we got real aggressive on offense and defense and just mentally locked down on defense. It just led to fast breaks on offense.’’
Kentucky had the UNLV look about it when it flipped toward a fast-break team. The efficiency from Marquis Teague at the point, the acrobatic nature of Davis in retrieving errant passes, even when he’s underneath the net, the way in which Michael Kidd-Gilchrist heads to the hoop without any fear of being hit, the unselfish play by Jones (6 assists) and the spot shooting from Doron Lamb and even Kyle Wiltjer off the bench makes this as complete a team as any John Calipari has had at UMass, Memphis or Kentucky.
“In that first half, we played flying up and down the court,’’ Calipari said. “If it’s not there, we run the offense. If you go zone, we’re driving that ball. We’re not settling.
“Defensively, we’re swarming and blocking shots,’’ Calipari said.
Kentucky did have some foul trouble, with Kidd-Gilchrist ultimately fouling out and Davis playing with four.
But who would quibble over officiating Sunday?
The unselfishness of this squad shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Kentucky’s two previous teams weren’t this giving with each other. And both of them reached the Elite Eight, with last season’s team losing in the national semifinal. This one should be able to take the next step.
“We’ve got seven players on this team that average 25 points a game in high school and all seven led us in scoring this year [at some point],’’ Calipari said. “Anthony Davis, would you say he’s pretty good? He’s our fifth-leading shot-taker. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is our fourth. When Kyle Wiltjer’s in the game, they love it and they throw him the ball. They’re fine with that. They’re excited when he makes it. They figured it out that as a young team they had to do it together and they would all benefit.’’
Calipari said he doesn’t make any promises in recruiting. He won’t say how many starts you’ll get or shots you’ll take.
“If you want to shoot 30 times a game, you’re not coming here,’’ Calipari said. “If you want to win a national title and the answer is, 'Yes I do,' then you can’t do it alone. There are a bunch of other guys like you on the team so you’ll have to share the ball.’’
Kentucky faces Louisville in the national semifinal Saturday in New Orleans. The Commonwealth will implode in delight.
Calipari has already toned down the rivalry with Louisville coach Rick Pitino, saying they don’t exchange cards but are friendly acquaintances. Calipari said if he had five players from Kentucky, he would be more worried about this being a big deal. He does not, so he’s not. And the players don’t seem too fazed by the Cardinals’ matchup, either.
The fans? Well, that’s another matter.
If Kentucky wasn’t the favorite to win the title before Sunday then it must be now. The Wildcats were the No. 1 overall seed and played like it Sunday. They head to face Louisville, with Kansas playing Ohio State in the other semifinal, so this is still Kentucky’s title to lose. The Wildcats can surely lose to Louisville or to KU or Ohio State. But they won’t be the overwhelming pick to do so.
“Has my team ever been the favorite? Let me think,’’ Calipari said. “At UMass, we were the No. 1 team but Kentucky had nine NBA players. And then the Memphis team, there was Kansas, North Carolina, we were a No. 1, but we weren’t the number-one No. 1. No one picked us to win. Last year, no one picked us to win.
“Yeah, it’s the first time. How about that. Are we the favorite?’’
“Wow. That’s a good thing I guess.’’