Let's savor Saturday's semifinals

NEW ORLEANS -- I don't remember the past two or three Final Fours. I can recall most details from the national title games during that stretch, even those that were uneventful.

But I couldn't offer a synopsis of the games that preceded them.

I know Memphis and Kansas didn't have a hard time reaching the 2008 title game. Michigan State and North Carolina won their 2009 semifinal matchups by 23 points combined over Connecticut and Villanova, respectively.

I covered the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis. Butler and Michigan State played a tight one, but Duke crushed West Virginia.

Virginia Commonwealth and Butler reaching the Final Four as mid-majors made the 2011 Final Four in Houston interesting. But Connecticut went 1-for-12 from the 3-point line in a one-point win over Kentucky. And Butler had little trouble with VCU.

Nothing specific, however, that really lingered in my psyche.

That won't be the case when I'm asked about this season's national semifinals.

On Saturday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, both games produced memorable sequences that will fans will reflect upon years from now.

Whether they watched from a seat at the Superdome or a couch or bar stool somewhere in America, they were all treated to a pair of fascinating matchups.

For the first time in years, the Saturday games actually served as more than a perennial launching pad toward Monday's finale.

The buzz in downtown New Orleans spilled into the Superdome for the 2012 Final Four.

Supporters from all four schools -- Louisville and Kentucky seemed to represent 70 percent of the fan support -- walked five wide on Bourbon Street toward the Superdome. They chanted and cheered.

And inside of the venue, the teams treated those travel-weary -- tipsy in some cases -- backers to a pair of thrillers.

Louisville didn't have a chance, right?

That was the common theory before the Cardinals faced rival Kentucky in the first game of the evening. And the Cardinals did little to disprove it for the majority of the matchup.

Then, a second-half run challenged every pregame declaration that suggested they had no chance against the Wildcats.

Down by 12 points early in the first half, the Cardinals were on their way to becoming another Kentucky blowout victim. The Wildcats were comfortable and moving toward an embarrassing victory. But then the Cardinals launched a 15-3 burst that gave the Louisville fans a chance to erupt.

Russ Smith scored on back-to-back plays. Gorgui Dieng dunked. Wayne Blackshear did, too. A few free throws, a Peyton Siva jump shot and then the Superdome-shaking 3-pointer to tie it at 49.

Suddenly, we had a game. Suddenly, we began to wonder if Kentucky's season would actually end with the national championship on Monday night.

Kentucky couldn't quite pull away. The Wildcats clearly had superior talent. But they didn't really put the Cardinals to bed until the final minutes. Louisville was down by six points with 1:41 to play.

The Cardinals made the Kentucky matchup far more interesting than most assumed it would be.

Yes, Anthony Davis & Co. celebrated as though they were about to cut down the nets. But in reality, the Cardinals, their rivals, had put a crack in the glass shell of invincibility that seemed to surround the program all season.

And they didn't even belong in New Orleans. They finished seventh in the Big East. The Cardinals were plagued by injuries. But they managed to reach the Final Four.

They did not, however, just allow the Wildcats to walk over them on their way to a possible national title.

But the Wildcats were brilliant in stretches. Davis had a Wilt Chamberlain-like performance (18 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist struggled with early foul trouble, but a second-half spin move dazzled the crowd. He helped the Wildcats stay ahead with late dunks. Veteran Darius Miller helped his young teammates stay calm against the pressure dictated by Louisville and the stage.

They gave us drama.

We needed that.

And we didn't mind the additional theatrics that Kansas and Ohio State produced in the second game.


I said that word about a dozen times during Kansas' wild comeback in the second half. The Jayhawks had lost that game.

But the Jayhawks have been a defensive juggernaut after halftime throughout the NCAA tournament. In their past four games, they've given up just 24.0 ppg, a 24.2 field goal percentage and 18.4 percent clip from beyond the arc after halftime, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Jeff Withey blocked seven shots, including a late layup by William Buford.

The Jayhawks opened the second half on a 13-4 run.

You could see a change in Ohio State's body language. The Buckeyes looked uncomfortable for the first time in the game.

Kansas had done this in many games this season. Emerged with a win against difficult odds. And they were doing it again.

The last five minutes were a heavyweight title fight. Jared Sullinger threw his big body around. Thomas Robinson muscled toward the rim. Buford made clutch plays. Elijah Johnson matched him.

Johnson gave the Jayhawks a 3-point lead with a layup at the 1:08 mark.

And this Buckeyes team that had been so mature throughout the NCAA tournament unraveled after that.

Deshaun Thomas took bad shots late to try to get back into the game. Tyshawn Taylor ripped Buford on a late in-bounds.

But instead of sealing the win, Taylor threw a pass out of bounds even though Jayhawks didn't need a play to secure the victory.

You could hear Kansas fans gasp when Taylor turned the ball over. It didn't make sense.

Neither did Ohio State's refusal to foul when it was down by two points with 2.9 seconds remaining on the clock and Thad Matta urging his players to do something on the final play of their season.

The Kansas-Kentucky national title matchup features a multitude of fascinating storylines. Robinson versus Davis in a battle of national title candidates. John Calipari versus Bill Self, who led Kansas to a win over Calipari's Memphis squad in the 2008 national title game. The two teams with the most wins in college basketball. And this is the first time that the Final Four has featured three rematches, per ESPN Stats & Info.

But before we get the national championship, let's savor Saturday.

The four teams involved didn't disappoint.