Championship moments: Cats kick it into high gear for tournament

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 fifth in a series of articles chronicling the championship moments during the 2011-12 Kentucky basketball season. Today we begin a look at UK’s 2012 NCAA Tournament journey, from the beginning.

The Kentucky Wildcats entered their record 52nd NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and practically every national college basketball commentator’s pick to win the 2012 national championship. With those expectations, plus the championship expectations of college basketball’s most passionate fan base weighing on the shoulders of John Calipari’s youthful Cats, the pressure the players surely felt to perform had to have been overwhelming.

Or was it?

“I’m ready to play. I’m just ready to play,” Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said before the start of the tournament. “I can’t wait. I’m just very excited, very excited. It’s a dream come true.”

It was also a dream come true for the UK faithful, as the Wildcats, as many expected, were placed in the South Region, with UK’s first two tourney games being played 75 miles to the west of Lexington, at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. With the Yum! Center being the closest (to Lexington) NCAA tourney venue the Wildcats have played in since playing their first two rounds of the 2005 Big Dance in Indianapolis, the “blue mist” was sure to converge on the home of the Louisville Cardinals, making the arena feel like home.

“That’s a good thing for us,” Doron Lamb said after the Selection Sunday broadcast. “We’re playing in Louisville so we know we’ll have a lot of blue in there.”

Instead of suffering under the (potentially) soul-crushing pressure brought on by great expectations, the Kentucky Wildcats were ready, relaxed and confident as they entered the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Most importantly, though, each UK player who would take the floor experienced his own championship moment in the Wildcats’ six-game March Madness sweep, affirmatively answering the question, can a team this young win the title?

The sophomores set the tone

Sophomore Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones set the tone in the early games of the NCAA Tournament. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

Terrence Jones, the man who snubbed the NBA Draft to come back to UK and win a championship, along with fellow sophomore Doron Lamb, collaborated to jumpstart the Cats in their second-round tourney game against in-state rival Western Kentucky.

Jones recorded only his fourth double-double of the year, but third in four games, as he paced Kentucky with 22 points and 10 rebounds as the Cats steamrolled the No. 16 seed WKU Hilltoppers, 81-66.

“I just wanted to tell everybody to have fun and run,” Jones said after the game. “We just got going from there.”

Jones’ running mate Lamb was having none of his teammates’ humble pie. It was obvious to everyone watching the game that Jones was playing with great energy and aggressiveness, something which usually leads to a fat stat line for the forward.

“You can’t really guard Terrence if he plays his A-game throughout the whole game,” Lamb said about Jones’ performance. “If Terrence keeps doing that, we’ll go far in this tournament.”

Lamb, who contributed 16 points on 2-of-4 3-point shooting, was joined in double figures by Anthony Davis, who also scored 16 while controlling the lane with nine rebounds and seven blocks, allowing UK to outscore the Tops 46-26 in points in the paint.

But it was Jones and Lamb, with their championship moments, who fueled the Cats against the Toppers, as Kentucky advanced one step closer to its ultimate goal.

“Last year they (Jones and Lamb) went through a lot,” senior Darius Miller said after the Cats win. “We made it to the Final Four. We had a lot of tough games; we’ve been in a lot of intense games. I feel like they’ve experienced almost as much as any senior. Making it to the Final Four, not everybody gets a chance to experience that. They know what it takes …”

Teague and Miller deliver

In Kentucky’s third-round game against a tough Iowa State team, led by the gifted Royce White, it was the freshman point guard Marquis Teague and Miller who stood and delivered their championship moment in UK’s 87-71 third-round victory.

Teague, who scored a career-high 24 points (seven more points than his previous high of 17), and played a nearly flawless floor game, recording seven assists to only two turnovers, was able to get to the rim with relative ease, something he took advantage of all game long.

“I brought him here because when I watched him play, I absolutely loved his game,” Calipari said after Teague’s performance. “But today, they really left him (open). I told him, ‘look, you’ve got to keep people honest.’ ”

Teague, who had a hand in 43 of UK’s 87 points (24 points, plus the 19 points scored off his seven assists), was a picture of versatility when it came to how he ran the Wildcat offense.

Darius Miller played arguably the most emotional game of his career against Iowa State. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“I didn’t really care about scoring points,” Teague said after the contest. “I just wanted to get my teammates involved and do whatever I needed to do to help my team win. I was just trying to push the ball in transition and take whatever play they were going to give me. They gave me the layup a lot tonight.”

Miller, always eager to deflect credit and heap praise on his teammates, recognized the impact Teague’s performance had on the game’s outcome.

“He was the main part of us winning,” Miller said about Teague’s phenomenal effort. “Not only did he score a lot, he had a really good floor game. He got other guys involved, myself included. Most of the shots I had came from him. He hit us all in the right spots.”

And it was Miller, playing perhaps his most outwardly emotional game as a Wildcat, who lit up the Cyclones from long range and midrange alike, making 3 of 6 from beyond the arc and 7 of 11 from the field overall, on his way to 19 points. He also grabbed six rebounds, tying his season high.

“All of us know when this is over we’re done (playing) together,” Miller stated after beating WKU. “We were trying to play extremely hard, especially myself, with this being my senior year. We’re just not ready for it to end yet.”

Because of Miller’s awareness of the stakes, it was was more than point production that the Mason County alum brought to the floor that night. It was contagious emotion and energy that the senior leader spread amongst his teammates, bolstering the Cats’ enthusiasm and strengthening their resolve.

“Making big shots, celebrating, telling us what to do, being a leader on the team, basically acting like the senior on the team — that’s his job and that’s what he was doing,” Davis said about Miller’s play against the Cyclones. “That really helps us when he’s making plays and making shots.”