For 26 seconds, all things seemed possible, the upset and the memory and the championship. For 26 seconds, it seemed as if college basketball might make room for another unthinkable victory over another unbeatable opponent. For 26 seconds, there was not a heartbeat in all of Kentucky.
Then, as quick as turning on a light, the Wildcats showed their greatness.
This is when a team proves itself, when it is playing a scrappy rival that can smell victory in the air, when it is playing a rival that is trying to make a memory that will last for a hundred years, when haywire is about to break out all over the court. These are the moments when a team has to rediscover its poise, when it has to reclaim the night before it joins teams like Houston and Georgetown and UNLV in the underachiever's graveyard of the Final Four.
If you are going to be impressed with anything about Kentucky — and there are several places to begin — you should start there, with freshmen who act as if they have been playing college basketball for a decade. That is why they won Saturday night, and it is why they will win again on Monday.
It was late in the game, and Louisville had somehow clawed its way from 13 points down into a 49-49 tie with 9:12 to play. Peyton Siva had just knocked down a 3-point shot, and suddenly, the less skilled, less revered Cardinals seemed in control. Suddenly, it didn't matter where Kentucky was seeded, or where it was ranked, or where its players were going to go in the NBA draft. There were 462 seconds left, and the game was anybody's.
And then it wasn't, and Anthony Davis was tossing the ball toward the Superdome scoreboard, shooting his fist into the air and yelling, "This is my stage."
This is what these Kentucky Whiz Kids do. They take your best shot, and they run away and hide. They devour pressure and hope and opponents and anything else in their way. This time, they went on an 11-2 run to take any questions out of the evening except this one: Next?
Say this for Louisville: Considering the fact it couldn't shoot a lick, it gave Kentucky a nice run. In the end, it took 20 more shots than Kentucky but made four fewer. It outrebounded the Wildcats 40-33 but scored only 13 second-chance points. It made it close, but like the rest of college basketball, it could not run with Kentucky.
"I have a team that has had teams come at them all year," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "And they've responded like they did."
They are children. When you watch Kentucky play, when you watch the athleticism of Davis or the power of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or the speed of Marquis Teague, you tend to forget what colts they are. They are a few months removed from their senior photos. The Wildcats start three freshmen and two sophomores, which technically means they could win the national title and the national junior college title in the same year if only the rules allowed.
And yet, they play with unmatched skill and uncommon poise. And whenever they get into trouble, Davis is there to bail them out with a basket, a block or a rebound. He's such a complete player that after the game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino compared him to former Celtics great Bill Russell when it comes to his impact on a game.
"These guys don't play like freshmen," said Darius Miller, a rare senior on Kentucky. "They play like seniors in college. We've been successful in those situations throughout the year."
For this team, there will not be another year. That's the high-wire act that Calipari plays by recruiting so many talented freshmen who think college is a seven-month journey. True, this may be a hello-and-goodbye season for them all, but while they are here, they are a fairly impressive sight to witness. Just think: If the NBA didn't offer such riches, in another two years this could turn into one of the finest teams in memory. Of course, it might be anyway.
"To say they're young … they're the most efficient team in the country," Calipari said. "We're not just rolling balls out. I don't know what's bad for college basketball about it. It's not their rule, and it's not my rule that they can leave after a year. I don't like the rule, but it's a rule."
The rest of college basketball? It's probably just fine with these kids turning pro. Who needs any more proof these guys can play?
"Whoever they play is going to have to play a hell of a game to beat them (Monday)," Pitino said. "Are they beatable? No question about it. Vanderbilt did it. But you're going to have to play great offense, great defense and you've got to bring your A-plus game, and they have to have a B-game. That's what has to happen. You have to get one or two players in foul trouble."
Oh. Just that? There are fewer ingredients in a stew.
That's what it's going to take, however. To beat the Wildcats, someone is going to have to slow them down, and push them around, and shoot the daylights out of the basketball. And if they get the chance, they're going to have to finish them off.
The bad news? By Monday, when the Wildcats climb the ladder to trim the nets, they are going to be much, much older.