NEW ORLEANS — Once he blinked a few hundred times and focused away from the AYSO uniforms surrounding him, once he realized the other guys were good but not great and probably more amped about getting orange slices at halftime and participation trophies, Anthony Davis decided to take Kentucky’s basketball team where most predicted it would be back in November.
To within 40 minutes of a national championship.
To within one victory of cutting down a net and hoping New Mexico’s Steve Alford won’t steal it to match a new suit.
Davis has spent much of his time here picking up various national Player of the Year awards, and his performance Saturday confirmed that lofty status for a kid destined to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
Kentucky beat its hated rival Louisville 69-61 in one Final Four semifinal at a blue-soaked Superdome, delivering the Wildcats to the national title game against Kansas on Monday and a freshman to the kind of stage his talent dictates.
As the final seconds ticked away, Davis looked into a sea of Kentucky faithful and shouted, “This is my stage!”
He made it that way by not getting blinded by the bright uniforms Louisville wore to the party — there’s an under-10 Orange Dragons soccer team missing its jerseys somewhere in the Commonwealth — and by making the sort of plays that turn a two-point game into a nine-point game five minutes later.
Davis finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks on a night Kentucky couldn’t hold its own on the boards, but as hard as Louisville played in claiming 19 offensive rebounds, it couldn’t box out the game’s best player enough to have a chance in the end.
Davis joined Danny Manning as the only players since 1986 to have at least 15 points, 10 boards and five blocks in a Final Four game.
“Anthony Davis is as fine a basketball player as there is,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “His length is incredible. When you’re playing against Bill Russell at the pro level, you know why the Celtics won 11 world championships. When you’re playing against this young man at the collegiate level, you realize why they’re so good. He is so much a factor.”
This is what happens against shot blockers like Davis: When you get second-chance scoring opportunities, you have to finish at the rim once he leaves his man. Louisville couldn’t do that nearly enough. It kept missing. Davis altered as many shots as he blocked, if not more.
Davis as a freshman is Marcus Camby as a junior, rivaling the former Massachusetts star as the best big men who have played under John Calipari at the college level. Camby might have been better offensively, but Davis rebounds better and blocks shots at a higher rate. Blocking shots takes effort, desire, work.
It also helps that Davis is listed at 6 feet 10 inches tall, and his arms might be 10 feet 10.
Kentucky is so good because as terrific as Davis is, he averages the fourth-most shot attempts on the team. Yes. Three other guys take more shots than the nation’s best player. Davis is also as unselfish a star as you will find, someone other stars love playing with, often a tough mix to discover at any level.
“We’re from Kentucky,” Davis said. “We’re built for this.”
The Wildcats are here now, 40 minutes from that championship, their first appearance in a season’s final game since winning the school’s seventh title in 1998, yet another chance for Calipari to fill a major hole in his coaching resume.
He will arrive at such a moment with the best player, a game-changer and perhaps championship-maker, a young man who could become the first since Manning to win a national title and be selected No. 1 overall a few months later.
There are worse fates.
“He played like this all year,” Calipari said. “You think it was better than other games he has played? The greatest thing about (Davis) is he makes his teammates better and they make him better.”
The second greatest thing is that he could look at Louisville’s uniforms and not go blind.
And, of course, having 10-foot-10-inch arms.
Contact Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN Radio 1100 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.