ATHENS, Ga. – Darius Miller was clapping. He was yelling. He was practically begging.
Miller had just hit a tough jump-stop floater in traffic to give Kentucky a 31-25 lead over Georgia. On the next possession, he raced to the left elbow – the same spot he’d hit two 3-pointers earlier in the game – and found himself wide open.
He wanted the ball. He basically demanded it.
Doron Lamb saw Miller and fired it to him. He subsequently nailed the trey. On the next possession, the ball went right back in his hands and he hit another pretty floater. It was all part of a 10-1 stretch and personal 7-0 run for Miller late in the first half that silenced a sellout crowd 10,523 fans at Stegeman Coliseum and put to bed any chance of a top-ranked shocker.
Just a day after reclaiming the nation’s No. 1 ranking, Kentucky (20-1, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) rolled past Georgia 57-44 on Tuesday night. Perhaps more importantly, the Cats’ senior leader, who scored a season-high-tying 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting, may have found his groove – and his confidence – just in time for the homestretch of the season.
“I guess it was just one of those days,” Miller said. “I was trying to be aggressive. My teammates did a great job of getting me open opportunities so I just let it go. I was just happy to be making them.”
Go figure, Miller’s big night just so happened to occur in his first appearance off the bench in five games. Lamb, UK’s leading scorer, made his way back into the starting lineup in place of Miller, but Calipari said it was strictly for matchup purposes.
In a game where points came at a premium, Miller made his first six shots on his way to a season-high-tying 19 points in only 23 minutes of play.
Regardless, Miller’s third straight game in double figures could be a huge boost in confidence as the calendar gets ready to turn to February. The senior guard played a big part in UK’s late-season run a year ago, winning SEC Tournament MVP honors while leading the Cats to the league title and a Final Four berth.
“I know there’s times where I’m going to have to step up,” Miller said. “All the guys feel the same way. If you go and look back it’s been different guys every game. There are going to be different games where we have different leading scorers and we all understand that, we’re all happy for that.”
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist added 14 points and 11 rebounds and Kyle Wiltjer contributed two key 3-pointers off the bench. Their play was particularly important as Lamb, Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague were held to 18 points.
With Miller’s 19 points, six Wildcats are now averaging in double figures on the year, a rare feat in college basketball. No team has ever finished a season at Kentucky with six players averaging 10 or more points.
“We just want to win,” said Davis, who found other ways to contribute with 11 rebounds and five blocks. “That’s all that’s on our mind is winning. Whoever scores, it could be 2-0, no one really cares if we won.”
On this night, Davis said Georgia tried to double team in the post, leaving Miller wide open on the perimeter. He was usually on the left elbow where he made all four of his 3-pointers.
“That’s just the lane I was running this game,” Miller said. “They seemed to leave me open.”
Ironically, Miller’s first and only miss of the night was from just inside the 3-point line on the left elbow. That miss was during a 5:24 scoreless stretch for UK, but Georgia couldn’t capitalize. Instead, Miller atoned for the rare misfire moments later with a baseline dunk, ending the drought and silencing Georgia’s upset hopes.
Still, John Calipari found room for improvement in Miller’s game.
“Darius scored the ball but didn’t defend the way we needed him to,” Calipari said. “That’s why I couldn’t leave him in the game at the end.”
When Miller was told postgame that Coach Cal yearned for even more, the senior, after laughing, tended to agree.
“I don’t know if he’s ever told us we’ve played great or perfect,” Miller said. “That’s impossible but that’s what he’s striving for. He wants us all to play perfect games, that way we can win a national championship. That’s our goal and that’s what we expect him to say to us.”
Calipari’s call for improvement wasn’t relegated to just Miller. Even after improving to 6-0 in the SEC for the first time since the 2004-05 team started 10-0 in league play, Calipari continued to reiterate that his team still has a long ways to go to meet its ceiling.
“This year’s team could be really special and we’re not right now,” Calipari said.
Kentucky, in helping Coach Cal improve to 45-7 as the top-ranked coaching in the country, looked special at times in the first half.
One, UK showed some early toughness and resiliency when it withstood Georgia’s intensity-driven 14-11 lead, and then there was the shooting (14 of 25 overall, 6 for 10 from 3) and the rebounding edge (20-11). The Cats also calmed a raucous crowd in Stegeman Coliseum and limited one of the SEC’s up-and-coming stars, freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.
But Kentucky struggled to score the ball in the second half, posting its fewest points in a half (19 in the second) and fewest in a game.
“I told them I’m not changing,” Calipari said. “I’m happy we won, I’m happy with how guys played, but I want you even better. That’s how I’m coaching right now.”