OK, it's time: Kentucky vs. Kansas for the NCAA title

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OK, it's time: Kentucky vs. Kansas for the NCAA title

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Jayhawks or Wildcats, take your pick. Either can make a case for this being "their" year. For Kansas, a season that started with low expectations keeps getting better, filled with high-wire comebacks and an inescapable feeling that this was simply meant to be. For Kentucky, a cadre of NBA-caliber players have had the word "champion" practically imprinted on their chests since they gathered at Rupp Arena for the season's first practice. They meet Monday for the NCAA championship, a history-filled matchup between the two winningest programs in college basketball history. This is the one-and-dones at Kentucky vs. juniors and seniors at Kansas; Anthony Davis vs. Thomas Robinson in a front-court battle of All-Americans; a title-game coaching rematch between John Calipari and Bill Self; a high-stakes meeting between one team whose founder invented the game and another that likes to claim its legendary coach perfected it. Kentucky (37-2), in search of its eighth national title but its first since 1998, has five, maybe six, players who will be playing in the NBA soon. Most are freshmen and sophomores. None are better than Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman who had 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks in Kentucky's 69-61 win over Louisville in the semifinals. "Anthony Davis is a great player, but he's not Superman," Self said, clearly ignoring the fact that, only moments earlier, Davis had been walking around the Superdome with his practice jersey slung across his shoulders like a cape. As he has all year and all tournament, Calipari has not so much defended as explained his coaching philosophy, which is to go after the very best players and not demand they graduate, but only that they play team basketball for whatever amount of time they spend in the Commonwealth. "I don't like the rules," Calipari said. "I want Anthony to come back and be my point guard next year. It's really what I want. There's only two solutions to it. Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I'm recruiting or I can try to convince guys who should leave to stay for me." He won't do either. By pulling no punches, the coach finds himself working with the most talent -- Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are likely lottery picks, while Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb are among the others with first-round potential. Calipari is a win away from the first national title of a stormy and controversial career, one that began as a volunteer assistant at Kansas. His first two trips to the Final Four have been vacated because of NCAA violations. Though his 2008 trip with Memphis is no longer in the record books, it's clearly emblazoned in his memory. That team, led by Derrick Rose, had one essential flaw -- bad free-throw shooting -- and the coach dismissed it every time he was asked about it in the days and weeks leading to his final against Self and the Jayhawks. The Tigers missed four free throws down the stretch and blew a nine-point lead in what turned into an overtime loss that gave Kansas its third NCAA title. Lessons learned? Well, Calipari does make his team run more after bad free-throw shooting nights. But regrets? Not many. "At the end of the day, we had a nine-point lead," he said. "I have to figure something out. Go shoot the free throws myself, do something to get us out of that gym and I didn't." A year later, Cal was out of Memphis and putting the pieces in place for his run at Kentucky. It began with a trip to the Elite Eight, continued last year with a spot in the Final Four and oddsmakers have Kentucky as a 6.5-point favorite to seal the deal this year against Kansas. "Doesn't bother us," Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "They've got high expectations, and they had a great year so the expectations should be high. What we think, though, is that we match up with them well. We feel confident going into this game." And why not? Though the talent level may not be as strong as Kentucky's from top to bottom, the Jayhawks (32-6) get more reinforcement every game that anything is possible. On Saturday, they overcame a 13-point deficit against Ohio State for their latest escape act. Before that in the tournament, they won close ones against Purdue, North Carolina State and North Carolina. They were comeback kids in the regular season, as well -- a season that began with low expectations for a roster that got hit hard by graduation and other departures, then fell to 7-3 after an ugly, unexpected home loss to Davidson. "I was a little frustrated because I thought that we were underachieving, underperforming," Self said. "I thought we were a stale team. I thought we were slow. I thought we didn't play with great energy. I thought the things we had to do to be successful, we weren't committing to doing them." Somewhere in that mess, however, he saw the potential. Much of it shined through thanks to the development of Robinson, known for his first two years in college as a role player with NBA skills. He was allowed to blossom when he got regular playing time this season and is averaging 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. He was the only unanimous AP All-American and was in the conversation, along with Davis, in most of the player-of-the-year voting. "We know how good Thomas Robinson is," Calipari said. "We all up here know. We went against him in New York. He is as good as they get. He's a vicious competitor, great around a rim, expanded his game." These teams met in November at Madison Square Garden, a 75-65 Kentucky victory in the second game of the season. There wasn't much conversation about that one Sunday. More noteworthy were all the historical aspects of this game. Basketball, of course, was invented by James Naismith, who later went on to establish the KU basketball program in 1898. Adolph Rupp grew up in Kansas and learned the game under Naismith and the next KU coach, Phog Allen, then moved to Kentucky. Over four decades, "the man in the brown suit" won 876 games and four NCAA championships. So many iconic names have followed at both places: Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Brown, Danny Manning at KU; Dan Issel, Wes Unseld, Rick Pitino at Kentucky. Come Monday night, somebody else could get their name up in the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena. "I dreamed about it as soon as I saw the brackets," Self said. "I did look. I said, How cool would it be to play Kentucky in the finals?' You guys know better than me, but when do you have the two winningest programs in the history of ball playing each other? I don't know when. From a historic standpoint, I think that's really cool.'"

Anton Khudobin battles for a huge win filling in for Tuukka Rask

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Anton Khudobin battles for a huge win filling in for Tuukka Rask

BROOKLYN, NY – Things didn’t go so well last season for the Bruins when Tuukka Rask suddenly wasn’t well enough to play in the last game of the season, so there was good reason for the B’s to be a little nervous when their No. 1 goalie again couldn’t answer the bell Saturday night vs. the Islanders.

Anton Khudobin had won four games in a row headed into Saturday night, of course, and in his previous start he’d helped snap a 10-game winning streak for the Calgary Flames. So perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising when Khudobin stood tall for the Bruins making 18 saves in a tight, nervy 2-1 win over the Isles at the Barclays Center.

“You don’t have that many shots, but maybe 10 scoring chances…that can be tougher than seeing 30 shots and same amount of scoring chances,” said Khudobin. “But I’m glad got the job done, we got our points and we got the ‘W’.”

It wasn’t wall-to-wall action in a game where both teams combined for 37 shots on net, but it was still impressive that Khudobin and the B’s special teams killed off six Islander power plays in such a tight hockey game. After the B’s backup netminder was lauded for the way he battled in the crease and competed for pucks like his team’s very life was on the line in a pivotal game.

“That’s the type of win that goes a long way in the room when your goaltender is battling hard, and fighting that hard to see pucks and your D are blocking shots. And you kill that many penalties. It was a nice building block for us,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I loved his performance. He’s a battler. He got swimming a couple of times, but that’s Dobby. He keeps it interesting for you. He’s a battler and he always has been. That’s what we needed tonight.”

One could spend days analyzing Cassidy's words and wondering much of that was deserved, appreciative praise for Khudobin, and how much of that might have been a veiled message to Boston's No. 1 goaltender sitting back home in Boston. 

The best save of the night probably won’t even count as a save for the Russian netminder. It was John Tavares, after having beaten Khudobin once in the first period, moving into the offensive zone with speed during a third period power play, and getting an open look at the net front in the high slot. Khudobin thought quickly and dropped into the unconventional double-stack pad save that seemed to throw Tavares off just a little, and the Isles sniper smoked the shot off the crossbar rather than tying up the game.

“I didn’t touch it. I didn’t really have time to get there, so the only thing I tried to do was the two-pad stack, old school Bob Essensa-style,” said Khudobin, who has now improved to 6-5-1 with a 2.60 goals against and an .899 save percentage this season. “Then he hit the crossbar. You need to get some luck in this league, and if you don’t get luck you’re going to lose games.”

A little luck and a little good, old-fashioned battling between the pipes was enough for Khudobin and the Bruins in Saturday night’s mammoth win. Now the questions become whether or not to go right back to Khudobin again on Tuesday at home against the Nashville Predators.

NCAA TOURNAMENT: Oregon beats Kansas 74-60 to punch Final Four ticket

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NCAA TOURNAMENT: Oregon beats Kansas 74-60 to punch Final Four ticket

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Oregon lost one of its best players to an injury just before the NCAA Tournament, had to survive two nail-biters to reach the Midwest Regional finals, and then faced a top-seeded Kansas team that had romped to the brink of the Final Four.

Of course, the Ducks would rise to the occasion.

With swagger and verve and downright prolific shooting, the plucky team that everybody wanted to count out rolled to a 74-60 victory over the Jayhawks on Saturday night, earning the Ducks their first trip to the national semifinals in nearly 80 years.

"You feel so good for so many people," said Ducks coach Dana Altman, who is headed to his first Final Four after 13 trips to the NCAA Tournament. "It's a team effort. You feel good for a lot of people."

Indeed, a whole lot of people had a hand in it.

Tyler Dorsey hit six 3s and poured in 27 points, Dillon Brooks added 17 and Jordan Bell finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks in a virtuoso performance for the Ducks (33-5), who seized the lead with 16 minutes left in the first half and never trailed the rest of the way.

Now, they'll face the winner of Sunday's game between North Carolina and Kentucky in the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona. It will be their first trip since 1939, when the Tall Firs won it all.

Player of the year candidate Frank Mason III had 21 points in his final game for the Jayhawks (31-5), but the offensive fireworks and steady poise that had carried them to a 13th straight Big 12 title fizzled just 40 minutes from campus on a night where very little went right.

Star freshman Josh Jackson was mired in early foul trouble. Sharpshooting guard Devonte Graham never got on track. And the swagger the Jayhawks showed in humiliating Purdue in the Sweet 16 simply evaporated for a team that rolled to the Elite Eight by an average margin of 30 points.

"I'm disappointed for them more than I am for me," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who fell to 2-7 in Elite Eight game, including four defeats as a No. 1 seed. "But the one thing that happened today, and it's hard to admit, the best team did win today."

The Ducks knew everything was stacked against them, but the point was only driven home when their bus passed the Power and Light District in downtown Kansas City on the way to the arena. Thousands of fans in red and blue were rallying hours before the tipoff, turning it into a de facto road game.

But the torrid shooting of Brooks, Ennis and Dorsey quickly deflated the sold-out Sprint Center, and sent a warning shot to the Jayhawks that they were in for a fight.

"You've got to give them credit," Graham said. "They hit some big shots."

Foul trouble sent Jackson to the bench for much of the first half, allowing the Ducks carve to out a comfortable lead. Then Dorsey finished the half with back-to-back 3s, including a deep bank shot at the buzzer, as the Ducks pranced to their locker room relishing in a 44-33 advantage.

"When you play hard throughout the whole game," Brooks said, "you catch some breaks."

The Ducks kept dancing in the second half, beating the Jayhawks at their own game: Getting into transition, passing up good shots for better ones and knocking down 3-pointers.

The Ducks' lead swelled to 55-37 when Brooks drilled another shot from the perimeter, and frustration began to creep into the Kansas bench. It was only compounded every time Jackson or Graham tossed up a shot that clanked hollowly off the iron, the Jayhawks' sense of desperation slowly growing.

Jackson didn't score until midway through the second half, and said later he'd "never been in such a tough position." Graham was 0 for 7 from the field, missing all six of his 3s.

The Jayhawks eventually began to whittle into their deficit, doing most of the work at the free-throw line. But the Ducks kept answering just enough to keep the crowd from giving Kansas anything extra.

When Svi Mykhailiuk scored to make it 64-55, Ennis answered with a driving basket. When Mykhailiuk buried a 3 from the corner to make it 66-60 with 2:49 left, Dorsey answered at the other end with another 3-pointer as the shot-clock expired to give Oregon some breathing room.

A few minutes later, the Ducks were cutting down the nets to end a satisfying trip to Kansas City.

"The seven years we've been at Oregon, we've had great guys to work with," Altman said, "but I also feel good for all the other players, the ex-players, who have built Oregon basketball. Like we said, 1939 is a long drought, but we owe all the ex-players."