The looks on their faces seemed to be more of relief than elation. Pegged as one of two overwhelming favorites in October (North Carolina being the other), and the prohibitive favorite entering the NCAA tournament, a season without a national title would have been a disappointment for the Kentucky Wildcats.
Doron Lamb scored a game-high 22 points and Most Outstanding Player Anthony Davis left his fingerprints on the game in spite of a 1-for-10 shooting performance, helping lead Kentucky to a 67-59 win over Kansas in New Orleans. The win gives Kentucky their eighth in school history and first since 1998, and it's also the first for head coach John Calipari.
"Now I can get about my business of coaching basketball and getting these players to be the best that they can be, helping young people," said Calipari when asked what the title meant to him.
"You know, create better lives for themselves and their families, and also helping them prepare for life after basketball. I can get on with that. I don't have to hear the drama. I can just coach now."
The reason why he can "just coach now": a group that displayed a chemistry many thought impossible with so many having the potential to make a quick exit to the next level. Talent's great, and this Kentucky team had plenty of it, but a team doesn't go 38-2 and win a national title on talent alone.
Lamb knocked down a pair of key 3-pointers in the second half to hold off the first Kansas rally, extending the lead to 54-38 with 10:04 remaining. Kansas would get as close as six points but wouldn't close the gap any further, with Kentucky's stellar first half establishing a distance they were unable to overcome.
Thomas Robinson led the Jayhawks in what will most likely be his final collegiate game with 18 points and 17 rebounds, and for the junior to put up that kind of line on a night many felt he struggled says something about the effort he gave.
Kentucky's length inside has been a problem for teams all season long and it was for Robinson as he finished 6 of 17 from the field, but he and Jeff Withey kept plugging. Withey finished with seven rebounds and four blocked shots but went 2 of 8 from the field. As a team Kansas shot 35% from the field and 33% from two, nullifying a 5 of 11 night from beyond the arc.
"A lot of times I tried to go to my left shoulder on Jones, but I could see Anthony skying over top of him," said Robinson. "So it was kind of tough for me to even pass it to Jeff or try to get a shot up. [Davis] definitely impacted the game for a stretch on the defensive end."
Davis may have had a poor night from a shooting standpoint but the freshman from Chicago did everything else in the paint for Kentucky. He finished with 16 rebounds and six blocked shots and five assists on the night, and with Lamb and Marquis Teague (14 points) providing the bulk of the offense all he really had to do was produce in the paint.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist added 11 points, Terrence Jones chipped in with nine and seven rebounds and senior guard Darius Miller gave Kentucky good minutes off the bench, a formula that's worked all season long. Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor combined to score 32 points on the night for Kansas but they needed 30 shots from the field to do so, making just 13.
The question for both teams now is whether they'll have enough in 2012-13 to make a return to the Final Four happen, and the answer would be 'yes'. Kansas may be losing Taylor and (likely) Robinson, but the other key players from Monday night are expected back and Ben McLemore will be eligible as well. If anything was learned from this season it's that Bill Self's program should never be counted out of the national title discussion.
As for Kentucky, they'll have personnel openings are there's the possibility that all six of their main rotation guys head off to the NBA. But Calipari will reload with another potent recruiting class led (right now) by Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, and Kyle Wiltjer should be better equipped for major minutes as a sophomore.
The question is whether or not they can come together as this group did, as the national champs shared a chemistry seldom seen amongst such a young group.