Championship moments: Big-game Mike built for championship stage

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 third in a series of articles chronicling the championship moments during the 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season. Today we chronicle Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s knack for coming up big in the biggest games of the season as he became the emotional leader of the 2012 national champions.

The moment Michael Kidd-Gilchrist announced he was attending the University of Kentucky in November 2010, Wildcat fans rejoiced. Kidd-Gilchrist, out of renowned St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth, N.J., was long considered to be the best high school hoops player in the country, and UK fans relish the nation’s top stars casting their lot with the Cats.

But little did the UK contingent know, Kidd-Gilchrist would become the consummate warrior and spiritual leader of the nation’s most outstanding team, his name synonymous with great hustle and desire. Kentucky coach John Calipari, though, after watching Kidd-Gilchrist play for several years on the recruiting trail, knew Kidd-Gilchrist possessed the goods.

“Michael is a flat-out winner,” Cal said about Kidd-Gilchrist in the 2011-2012 preseason. “He was the leader on one of the best high school teams in the country, not because he’s one of the nation’s best scorers, but because of his intangibles, intensity and passion. With his athleticism and length, he has a chance to be one our best defenders. I’m looking for Michael to be the fire on this team.”

Right on both counts, Kidd-Gilchrist became the Cats’ go-to defender, often drawing the assignment of slowing down the opposition’s most dangerous offensive weapon. Kidd-Gilchrist was additionally peerless as the Cats’ “energy” guy, elevating everyone else’s game with his passionate play.

Taming the Tar Heels

Kidd-Gilchrist’s desire to play, and moreover, his desire to win, was evident from the beginning of UK’s championship season, as he set the performance bar heavenly high with his double-double effort in UK’s early December 73-72 win over fellow college basketball blueblood North Carolina.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds on the season. (photo by Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)

“Michael was unbelievable,” Coach Cal said after Kidd-Gilchrist led the Cats with 17 points and 11 rebounds. “He is unbelievable. He’s the greatest kid. I used him on defense and left him alone on offense. I’m going to tell you this: If we need a free throw late in the game, I’m giving him the ball and letting him shoot it. He will make a free throw late because he’s got that kind of courage.”

It was perhaps that game, the North Carolina contest, where Kidd-Gilchrist established himself as the freshman leader of the future national champions.

“We see him working hard, diving for loose balls and everything, and we want to do the same thing,” UK point guard Marquis Teague said. “It’s follow the leader.”

Although Kidd-Gilchrist paced the Cats in scoring in the UNC victory, it was fellow freshman star Anthony Davis who rejected UNC big man John Henson’s shot at the end of the game, essentially sealing the UK win. Because of his tremendous late-game play, it was Davis who received the bulk of the post game ink and attention, but it mattered not to Kidd-Gilchrist.

“You have to know Michael,” Calipari said. “He’s just the best kid. He wants everyone to feel good, and he never wants it to be about himself. He’s just an unusual kid.”

In other words, Kidd-Gilchrist was all about the team, and it was that genuine, team-first attitude which permeated through his Wildcat brethren and allowed the Cats to march to the Final Four as not only one of the youngest teams in the nation, but one of the tightest units who have ever donned the blue and white of Kentucky.

The “Breakfast Club” and beating Louisville

It was sometime in December when Calipari began to notice Kidd-Gilchrist doing basketball work prior to breakfast at the Joe Craft Center. It reminded Cal that Michael Jordan once organized extra, early morning workouts for him and his teammates when he played in the NBA.

So Cal, always looking for an edge, and wanting to build team camaraderie and work ethic, casually mentioned to his team the steps Jordan took to get better. Not surprisingly, it was Kidd-Gilchrist who took Cal’s bait and became the catalyst behind Wildcat team members beginning an early morning ritual of working out before breaking bread together as a team, forming a modern day Breakfast Club (named so after the John Hughes Brat Pack film from 1985).

“I did,” Kidd-Gilchrist answered when asked if he was the one of started the morning ritual. “It’s just lifting and shooting. We want to get better. I want to be a leader now, so I just want to step into that role.”

Anthony Davis, for one, wasn’t surprised Kidd-Gilchrist would push his teammates to be the best they can be through hard work and diligence.

“He never gets tired, and he brings it every game,” Davis said about Kidd-Gilchrist’s work ethic. “After practice he always stays after the end, working out. We don’t see how he does it. He’s a machine.”

All of Kidd-Gilchrist’s hard work and dedication to getting better paid off as the Cats took on their archrivals, the Louisville Cardinals, in a New Year’s Eve day game in raucous Rupp Arena. It was No. 3 UK versus No. 4 U of L, two schools with tremendous pride in their hard-court exploits, battling to show the Commonwealth they were the better team.

In a rough-and-tumble physical affair filled with 52 fouls and 70 free throws taken, it was Kidd-Gilchrist who stood out as the best player on the floor. He played 39 minutes, grabbing an astounding 19 rebounds, scoring 24 points, and getting to the free-throw line 13 times as he challenged the U of L big men with drive-after-drive to the tin in UK’s 69-62 win.

“He wasn’t bothered as much as some of the others by the physical play,” Cal noted after the game. “He almost relished it and just went after it, and that’s why he played the way he did. Michael … just stepped on the gas.”

It was Kidd-Gilchrist’s formation of the Breakfast Club, and the extra time spent working on his game, which catapulted Kidd-Gilchrist from being merely very good, to being special, to being a leader, especially in the U of L contest.

“The guys that continue to do those extra things, the extra work, it’s amazing,” Calipari said after the UK triumph. “You get what you deserve in life and basketball. You do. You want to spend the extra time, do more, and get out and do extra things, it’s going to start showing. … Where it affects you most is in your own head; you know you deserve to play well. Something is going to happen good for you.”

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would often draw the defensive assignment on the opposition's best player. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“So, you know, he was vicious today. He was vicious,” Cal finished, lauding Kidd-Gilchrist with the ultimate compliment any warrior can receive.

After his monstrous performance against the Cards, Kidd-Gilchrist displayed the honesty one expects out of a leader, dismissing the “shock and awe” single-game campaign as business as usual.

“This is me, this is what I live for right here,” said Kidd-Gilchrist, who played his best ball in the biggest games, notching three double-doubles against top-20 ranked teams and three on the road. “Why? I’ve always been that way. I’ve got a lot of heart, that’s why. And I’m built for it. I didn’t surprise myself. I was confident about my game.”

It was Kidd-Gilchrist’s confidence, born out of years of hard work and dedication to being the most special player he could be, which propelled him to greatness, and ultimately helped propelled him and his teammates up the ladder in New Orleans where they triumphantly snipped the championship nets.

Of course, Kidd-Gilchrist will be leaving Lexington for the NBA, but he offers as his gift to the Kentucky basketball program, not only an eighth national championship, but also an example for others to follow of how to best positively impact one’s teammates.

“What makes Mike so special is the passion he plays with,” Darius Miller said about Kidd-Gilchrist said on the Friday before the Final Four. “You can see it every time he steps on the court. I have really enjoyed playing with him. When you’re going into a big game like this one, you’re glad to have him with you.”