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He promised he wasn't "the grand poobah" the day he signed his eight-year, $31.65 million contract, but there's little doubt who rules the Bluegrass now.
"You play at Kentucky to raise banners, and I'm happy we did this," said Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "I'm happy for these guys, because no one gave them a chance."
Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only men's basketball coaches to lead three different programs to the Final Four. Calipari's previous visits at Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 were vacated by the NCAA for rules violations, but Calipari was not found liable in either instance.
Barnhart said Calipari wanted his Final Four appearances with the Wildcats "to stick." Time will tell, though he's already restored the luster to a program that's slowly slipped off its perch over the last decade.
That lust for a championship banner is why Kentucky went after Calipari so aggressively, making him the highest paid coach in the country.
He came close a year ago, as the Wildcats missed their first 20 3-point attempts in a dismal 73-66 loss to West Virginia.
There were no such issues Sunday. Knight hit a 3-pointer barely 3 minutes in, and Kentucky kept right on shooting. Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb also drilled 3s of their own to give the Wildcats an early confidence boost. Kentucky made 12-of-22 3-pointers on Sunday, very different from the miserable 4-for-32 effort they put together last season.
But that was a different team, one Calipari likened to a bulldozer. This one is a little smaller, a little leaner. And ultimately, a little more successful.
When they weren't knocking down jumpers from all over, they were getting their hands in passing lanes, pestering the bigger, longer Tar Heels into sloppy mistakes.
At one point Barnes found himself in an awkward position and tried to throw the ball off the backboard to himself. No dice. Harrellson, as he was almost all game, was right in position to gobble up the North Carolina mistake.
Kentucky roared into the halftime with a 38-30 lead then made it stand up as North Carolina failed to take advantage when the Wildcats grew skittish with the lead.
Kentucky wobbled, but it didn't falter and instead rocketed to Houston on the heels of a 10-game winning streak.
No team has been to the Final Four more than North Carolina, and the Tar Heels were poised to add to their NCAA-record 18 appearances after mauling Marquette in the regional semifinals on Friday.
Instead, their resurgent season ended with a downtrodden Barnes glumly shaking hands as Kentucky players donned Final Four caps a few feet away.
The game mirrored much of the talented freshman's season. He struggled early then caught fire late, scoring eight straight at one point as the Tar Heels clawed back into it.
Yet he faltered in the final minute, missing a 3-pointer after Liggins' big shot then missing another one after Knight hit two free throws to give Kentucky a six-point lead.
Barnes refused to discuss whether he'll return next year.
"All I know is the last two years I played basketball it ended with a championship, not a loss," he said. "I never felt like this before."
Neither have the Wildcats, all of whom where in grade school when Kentucky beat Utah in San Antonio for their seventh national title in 1998.
They don't need to be reminded of the program's rich history. It dangles from the rafters at Rupp Arena. Now they have a chance to add their own chapter to the legend.
"This is a great tradition that we have to live up to," Knight said. "It feels good that we were able to do this for Kentucky."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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