Kentucky maturing quickly in tourney

Published 1:55 am Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Associated Press

Kentucky coach John Calipari kept saying all season he liked his team. He said it when the Wildcats suffered through a miserable 1-7 record on the road in the Southeastern Conference. He reiterated it when his freshmen-laden roster lost six straight close games.

So when Kentucky limped through late-January and early February, he didn’t panic. Calipari refused to experiment with his bench when his starters struggled; he simply kept repeating his faith in youngsters like Brandon Knight and Terrence Jennings.

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Turns out Calipari’s kids are all right.

The team that couldn’t win a close game or one away from Rupp Arena is suddenly excelling at both. The fourth-seeded Wildcats (27-8) have won eight straight heading into Friday’s NCAA regional semifinal against top-seeded Ohio State.

To Calipari, the growing pains were worth it. He never doubted his team would mature. This one just took a little longer than usual.

“If the choice is talent or experience, I’m taking talent,” Calipari said. “Then you can blame me for us not winning. But I’m taking talent.”

Where the Wildcats were jittery in January they’re solid in March. It’s why Knight can shake off a scoreless performance to hit the game-winning shot against Princeton. It’s why Kentucky can take the fight to a West Virginia team that mauled them a year ago in the regional final.

Kentucky rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit against the Mountaineers to win 73-66 behind a career-high 30 points from Knight, who is quickly becoming the equal of former Calipari-coached point guards like John Wall and Derrick Rose.

“All the players I’ve coached, and I had guys that would live in the practice facility, literally, I’ve never seen a guy with this kid’s work ethic,” Calipari said of Knight.

Knight, as is his custom, shrugs off the superlatives. Though he claims he was “anxious” before facing the Mountaineers, he hardly played like it while leading Kentucky to the regional semifinals for the second straight year under Calipari.

Running Kentucky’s dribble-drive offense adeptly, Knight regained the shooting touch that abandoned him against Princeton as the Wildcats bulled past the Mountaineers in the final 20 minutes.

“My teammates continued to have faith in me even though I didn’t play such a great game (against Princeton),” Knight said. “They still had faith in me, and they really helped me out.”

It’s a game forward Darius Miller isn’t sure Kentucky would have won a month ago. Yet the last few weeks have seen Kentucky play with the kind of urgency it has lacked at times this season.

Nobody knows if the turnaround is a result of the pressure of the NCAA tournament or the reality that the season could be over at any moment. And nobody particularly cares either.

“We definitely have grown as a team and have come a long way,” Miller said. “It would have been a lot tougher if it was a month ago. We have grown and gotten better.”

Kentucky has shown it can win even when its stars don’t play like stars. Miller and center Josh Harrellson stepped in while Knight missed his first seven shots against the upstart Tigers.

Harrellson filled in again versus the Mountaineers, providing the kind of hustle plays that have become his specialty until Jones awoke from a sleepy first half to help Kentucky pull away. The senior came away from one scrum with a scratch over his eye that required four stitches. He shook it off to produce a key putback late to give Kentucky a 57-55 lead it would not relinquish.

“I knew we were down a little bit and I was trying to fight for my teammates to get us back in the game, and there was an opportunity there to get us a couple points, so I had to go get it,” Harrellson said.

It’s that kind of mentality that has fueled Kentucky’s late-season surge. The Wildcats are 2-0 in one-possession games during their current eight-game run. The shakiness that seemed to permeate when things got tight earlier in the year are now long gone. And not a moment too soon.

“I think guys really come out and they fight a lot harder, they go after rebounds a lot tougher,” Knight said. “It kind of changes the game. Guys play tough throughout the season, but I think they step it up a notch in the tournament.”