UK avoids upset with late layup and veteran play

The decision to have Brandon Knight take the last shot wasn’t improvised or spontaneous. If it had been, Knight would not have had his name called; he had missed all seven shots. Instead, it was an accumulation of all the work Knight has put in, all the preparation undertaken, with just this in mind: winning games in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m with him every day,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “There’s no one that works harder, spends more time or believes in himself, based on his work ethic. He’s the first one in the gym and the last one to leave and he goes at night. I have no problem putting that ball in his hand because he’s made that shot in the gym by himself many times, counting (the shot clock) off.”

He’s made them in practice, and in shootarounds, but had hadn’t made them in a real game. He missed last-second shots at Florida and Ole Miss. But Knight drove past the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, Kareem Maddox, for a layup that banked high off the glass and gave UK a 59-57 win over Princeton in the first round.

“Probably, so far in my career,” Knight said of whether it was the biggest shot he’d ever made. ” Just considering the magnitude. If we lose that game, season’s over.”

It wasn’t quite how a first-round game against an Ivy League opponent was supposed to go. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb both conceded a two-point victory was closer than expected. Josh Harrellson said he hoped this would be the one token close game in the tournament.

At one point, UK was down five points with about 10 minutes to go. Jones said UK has been down by more with less time to go, so they weren’t overly concerned.

“No panic,” DeAndre Liggins said. “No concern. That’s how you lose Tournament games.”

Even when Princeton stuck back-to-back jumpers in Liggins’ face to tie the game — “good defense, better offense,” Liggins said — UK was completely confident in its abilities to win.

“I didn’t lose confidence,” Knight said. “Not in myself, not in my team.”

Maybe not panic, but “jitters” for the freshmen, who combined for 19 points. (Also didn’t help that Terrence Jones was clearly sick. At one point in the two minutes spent talking to him, he coughed for 14 seconds straight, and he was coughing during some plays.)

“Those three players played a part, yet this team was carried by veterans today,” Calipari said.

That meant Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson.

Miller led the team with 17 points, and carried the team offensively in the first half when UK was struggling to score. He was a mismatch for the Tigers, posting up with good results frequently. Harrellson scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

“I just tried to be in the right spot at the right time,” said Harrellson, who often was.

That was the same pattern, generally, in the SEC Tournament. Knight and Jones struggled in those three games, while the veteran’s paced UK to the championship. It happened again Tuesday, but it’s not one UK wants to see continue.

“We’re going to focus on getting them more confident, more involved like they normally do,” Harrellson said. “Like, putting up double-digit points every game.”