Championship moments: Offensive versatility, overcoming adversity the preludes to a title

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 sixth in a series of articles chronicling the championship moments during the 2011-2012 Kentucky basketball season. Today we continue UK’s NCAA tournament journey.

MKG, versatility in scoring, lead Cats over Indiana

Proving that offensive versatility is tough for any defense to contend with, the Kentucky Wildcats, for the third straight NCAA Tournament game, had a player record a double-double, with the three double-dips coming by the hands and hustle of three different Wildcats.

Following up Terrence Jones’ and Anthony Davis’ NCAA tourney double-double efforts, it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who did the most damage in Kentucky’s 102-90 epic Sweet 16 win over the Indiana Hoosiers as UK’s freshman leader scored a career-high-tying 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds.

MKG, who netted 18 points against IU in UK’s last-second loss to the Hoosiers in December, was emotionally charged up from the opening tip and never relented.

“Mike’s a spectacular player, he brings a lot of energy,” Davis said after the game.

Kidd-Gilchrist’s enthusiasm was not only evident on the court, but also in the Wildcat huddle.

“In the huddle, during timeouts, Michael was the guy firing us up,” UK reserve guard Twany Beckham said. “It showed in his play.”

On a day Kentucky would post its second-highest NCAA tourney free-throw percentage by making 35 of 37 from the charity stripe (94.6 percent), it was MKG who drove the ball to the rim with strength, most often resulting in Kidd-Gilchrist free throws or a layup.

“We’re really having a more aggressive mindset,” said Jones, who scored the first five points of the second half. “That’s been our mentality to each game.”

The renewed Wildcat dedication to aggressiveness led to Kidd-Gilchrist taking 10 free throws in the game, making all 10.  But Kidd-Gilchrist just shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s no big deal,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “We’re just taking our time with free throws.”

It wasn’t just MKG, though, who came up big for the Cats against the Hoosiers. Personifying the offensive versatility often associated with the 2012 Wildcats, all of the Cats rose to the Hoosier challenge.

Doron Lamb netted 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting, making a perfect 8 of 8 from the line. Senior Darius Miller made 6-of-8 shots, 2 of 2 from the 3-point line, as he chipped in with 19 points. Point guard Marquis Teague added seven assists and 14 points, making all six of his free throws. Davis, while scoring “only” nine points, paced the Cats with 12 rebounds and three blocks. And Terrence Jones scored 12 points on only nine shots. Finally, Kyle Wiltjer played six minutes and nailed his only trey attempt.

“I think that’s what’s making it easier on each individual,” Jones said about UK’s versatility. “There’s not been a lot of pressure on just one player because (all the guys) are stepping up. When they try to have a game plan to stop two guys, the other three just step up.”

On this night, it wasn’t merely “the other three” stepping up to save the day. It was every member of the Wildcat squad, an achievement certainly worthy of championship moment status.

“They’ve got a lot of guys,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “They’ve got a guy coming off the bench (Miller) who’s going to be a first-round draft pick. They’re a really good team.”

Early Jones onslaught pushes Cats into Final Four

In the first three minutes and 43 seconds of Kentucky’s Elite Eight game against the tall and athletic Baylor Bears, BU outscored the Cats 10-5 on the strength of three lightly contested layups and a 3-pointer. The Bears’ energy level and focus were through the Georgia Dome’s roof, while a scrambling UK seemed to need a refresher course in the lose-and-go-home concept.

So, with 16:17 remaining in the first half, John Calipari called a 30-second timeout. Calipari was animated and intent as he tried to rally his troops to meet the intensity level of their foe.

“I told them we’ve got to step on the gas here,” Calipari said about the early timeout.

When Anthony Davis went down in the Baylor game, UK's national title hopes were temporarily put on hold. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

It was Terrence Jones who took his coach’s words straight to heart. Over the next 10 minutes, Jones was a wrecking ball, propelling Kentucky on a 16-0 run with his passionate defense, rebounding, and forward-led fast breaks.

“I was just trying to be aggressive early,” Jones said about his first half play. “That allowed me to get into great position to rebound and lead the fast break.”

Jones didn’t outright say it, but his play did – I want to go back to the Final Four.

Through the first 12:13 of the first half, Jones dished a career-high six assists, and through the first 12:04 of the opening stanza, Jones snagged five rebounds. All the while, Jones played Dentyne defense as he helped hold Baylor big men Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller to a combined 2-of-10 shooting from the floor.

“The first half was a great defensive performance,” Calipari said after Jones and the Cats held Baylor to 8-of-25 first-half shooting (32.0 percent).

The Wildcats’ sticky defense, spearheaded by an energized Jones, was the primary perpetrator in UK finding itself up 42-22 at the intermission and in complete control of the ball game.

But Jones wasn’t the only Wildcat who excelled on this, the biggest, brightest stage Cal’s accumulation of freshmen had ever seen. Combining to score 37 points on 13-of-19 shooting were Kentucky freshman big men Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, who both supplemented their length with great body control and an ability to handle the rock (along with Davis’ 18 points, he recorded his second double-double of the NCAA Tournament by corralling 11 rebounds).

“It’s kind of hard to play us,” Davis said about UK’s length. “We’re very long and athletic. It makes it tough on the other team.”

MKG scored the bulk of his game-high 19 points after BU coach Scott Drew went with a quicker (albeit smaller) lineup in an effort to offset UK’s speed on the break.

“I saw a mismatch (in size), and we just took advantage of the opportunity,” MKG said about the tactic.

It was Davis, though, who displayed championship courage by battling through severe pain after he violently banged knees with Baylor’s Jones with 18:38 left in the game as both fought for a rebound. Davis left the game and could be seen on the sideline grimacing in pain.

As the Big Blue Nation held its collective breath, Davis re-entered the contest a few minutes later. Playing in obvious discomfort, Davis fought off the urge to sit on the pine, choosing to instead fight for the Final Four.

“I knew my team needed me to play,” Davis said after the game. “I wasn’t going to sit out, especially with a trip to the Final Four (on the line), and all of us want to go to the Final Four. So I knew I needed to come into the game and help my team out, so I decided to come in.”

After limping through most of the second half, scoring zero points, Davis once again showed why he’s the most dangerous man on the court as he blocked four shots, two in the final minute, as the Cats pummeled a strong Baylor squad, 82-70, and advanced to the school’s second consecutive Final Four.

“This team is better than I thought,” Drew said. “This is the best team we’ve faced all year … probably in a couple of years.”

The Wildcats, within the context of the Baylor game, did what championship teams do, which is overcome adversity — a slow start and the Davis injury — on their way to victory.