Championship moments: The seeds of ‘Spider-Man’ are planted

Every championship team is defined by championship moments. They happen behind closed doors in practices, during regular-season games, and, of course, in the championship game. The following is the second in a series of articles chronicling the championship moments during 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season.Today we chronicle the early season play of Anthony Davis as the freshman phenom set a championship tone early in the UK season.

Part one: Title expectations countered by peace of mind

Davis arrived at the University of Kentucky with a reputation for being a strong defensive presence with a burgeoning offensive game. At 6-foot-10, the Chicago native was roundly considered one of the elite talents in the country and was named an ESPN Preseason All-American (second team) in early November. But in UK’s first exhibition game of the season, against Transylvania University, UK coach John Calipari saw ample room for growth in the big man’s game after Davis struggled to score against the diminutive Pioneers.

“He’s good, but physically, you know, we’ve got to figure out where to play him; where we put him where we can have success,” Calipari lamented after the Transy game. “Just throwing him in the post, say, ‘Here, post up, Shaq,’ that’s not who he is. I mean, he couldn’t do it today.”

Davis, who made only 2-of-7 shots in his first collegiate game experience, did, however, show glimpses of what he was capable of doing on the offensive end.

“(Davis) made one play where he went back to his left hand; it looked pretty good,” Coach Cal said about his freshman forward switching hands to get off a shot, something Davis continued to do throughout the season.

Ethan Spurlin, a 6-4 Transy forward, was effusive in his praise of Davis after the UK forward blocked eight Pioneer shots (and altered countless others), displaying for the first time his interminable wingspan.

“He is a great player,” Spurlin said about Davis. “He is really long and athletic. He really knows how to use his wingspan. He is going to be a great player this season.”

It was those words from Spurlin about Davis’ defense which served as fair warning to the rest of college basketball that Davis was going to be a force in the paint for the duration of the 2011-12 season. The Transy game was the beginning of talk which proclaimed Davis a game-changer, even if he doesn’t score a point.

Davis develops all-around game

In Kentucky’s season opener against Marist College, Davis displayed a more dangerous offensive game as he tossed in 23 points — 16 points coming on dunks — and grabbed 10 rebounds, becoming only the second UK freshman to post a double-double in his first game as a Cat. The high-flying performance earned the big fella Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors, and a collective “Wow” from the Big Blue Nation.

Through the Cats’ first seven games of the year, Davis contributed mightily to UK’s NCAA championship quest, averaging 13.0 points per game on 69.2 percent field-goal shooting to go along with 9.1 rebounds per contest.

But it was Davis’ defense, his ability to control the lane with his length, quickness, and wingspan, which set him apart from other, mortal big men. And it was his defense, Davis’ 36 blocks in seven games (5.1 per game), which had the nation buzzing and reporters asking Davis about breaking the UK single-season blocked shots record.

“I haven’t even noticed,” Davis said shyly. “I’d be happy with it though, that’s good to know. I would take it.”

Davis was scoring the ball, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and just generally wreaking havoc upon UK’s opponents, but in order for him to fulfill his ridiculously enormous potential, Davis had to conquer an old big man bugaboo: poor free throw shooting.

Davis answers a challenge

After Davis missed 5-of-8 free throws against Portland University in the Cats’ sixth game, Cal pleaded his case with his big man.

“Well, we’ve been working with him, but again, he missed free throws again today,” Calipari said. “It’s hard to post a guy if he isn’t going to make free throws. Again, I think this is part of Anthony’s growth. It’s called (having) a mental toughness.”

Showing true grit and resolution, Davis answered his coach’s challenge to get better at the line in a truly championship way. Through UK’s first 10 games, Davis made only 52.6 percent of his free-throw attempts (20 of 38), but in the Cats’ final 20 contests, and after putting in the work to improve, Davis connected on an outstanding 75.2 percent from the line (124 of165), enhancing his and UK’s offensive efficiency.

Davis saves the day: Kentucky versus North Carolina

Anthony Davis' block of John Henson in the closing moments of the North Carolina game served as not only a defining mark for UK's season but Davis' record-breaking college season. (photo by Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)

It was the most hyped regular-season contest of the 2011-2012 season. It was the newly minted No. 1 Wildcats against their fellow college basketball blueblood, the No. 5 Tar Heels. More than two dozen NBA scouts and front office personnel were in attendance, and media credentials were pure gold. The Rupp Arena throng was electric as the Cats took on their most demanding test of the early season.

“I didn’t realize, because I hadn’t been watching much TV, that this game was being played up (by the media) like the end alls of end alls,” Calipari said about the buzz surrounding the titanic tilt.

The game proved worthy of the ubiquitous exposure as the two teams swapped the lead eight times, and predictably, the outcome wasn’t decided until the final seconds.

With 21 ticks on the clock remaining and the Cats clinging to a tenuous 73-72 lead, the Heels gained possession with a chance to win.

UNC point guard Kendall Marshall, running a set play, found Tar Heel 7-footer Tyler Zeller just outside the lane, and as UK’s Terrence Jones supplied help, Zeller passed to an open John Henson.

The Big Blue Nation held its breath as the 6-11 Henson caught the ball and rose up strongly for the 10-footer. As the ball left Henson’s hand, into the frame flew Davis, with arms outstretched, as he blocked the game-winning attempt.

“He came from the other side of the lane,” said Henson after the game. “It was a great play by him.”

“I just jumped up as high as I could with my arm up,” Davis said about the rejection. “I thought I could probably block it. I have long hands. … I just sprinted as fast as I could and got the block and got the rebound.”

Terrence Jones, who had three swats in the contest, to Davis’ two, gave his teammate credit for the late-game win.

“I know (Davis) is a master right now at timing shots to block them. He got there and won the game for us.”

Davis’ block and UK’s win over North Carolina was not only the seminal early season championship moment of the 2011-2012 season, it was also the moment Davis proudly proclaimed: I am Spider-Man.