Kentucky beats Louisville to reach title game
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Senior guard Darius Miller made the most of his moment. Freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer did the same in his cameo.
Two players who would likely start for any other team in the nation are coming in off the bench for Kentucky, a highlight of the overflowing athleticism the Wildcats had on display in a 69-61 victory over Louisville in the Final Four on Saturday night.
“We have a lot of guys who can step up and a lot of different weapons,” Wiltjer said. “That makes us hard to guard so no one really knows who is going to score. We use that to our advantage and we just got a will to win and really push it. When a team’s getting closer, we always make our own run.”
Miller scored 13 points, Wiltjer added five and both snuffed out the Cardinals’ momentum at key points with their play on both ends of the floor.
“We’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point,” Miller said.
Wiltjer was among the nation’s top 20 recruits last year, but is largely overshadowed by Kentucky’s fantastic freshman starters: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Miller had started 69 games over his previous two seasons, but willingly took on a reserve role to make room for Kidd-Gilchrist.
“Someone had to come off the bench. He said, ‘I’m good with it,”’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He’s the most unselfish player I’ve ever coached. Sometimes it drives me crazy because I don’t think he understands how good he really is, but he’s done great things for us.”
While Kentucky’s freshmen and two sophomore starters get the spotlight, Miller and Wiltjer both provided key minutes as the Wildcats advanced to the national championship game for the first time since winning it all in 1998.
The top-seeded Wildcats (37-2) will face the winner of Ohio State-Kansas on Monday night.
“This is what we’ve been reaching for, at the end of the game we have a chance to win a national championship,” Miller said. “It’s an opportunity that not many people get.”
At moments when the Cardinals (30-10) appeared poised to pounce, Miller or Wiltjer shot them down.
Miller, the closest thing to a hometown kid after growing up 65 miles from Lexington in Maysville, Ky., is often called the sixth starter by Calipari.
“He’s our senior leader,” Teague said. “He’s been there since day one for us. Whenever we get a little hectic on the floor, he huddles us together, tells us to stay poised. We always look to him for leadership.”
Much like his role in the second half of games all season, he produced just when the Wildcats needed him.
With Kentucky leading 37-32, the 6-foot-9 Miller hit a jumper then stripped Chane Behanan on consecutive plays that led to points and put Kentucky ahead 43-32.
After the Cardinals rallied back and tied it, Miller was a major contributor in an 11-2 run that put Kentucky ahead to stay. He hit a 3-pointer — just the Wildcats’ second of the night — off a pass from Teague and added pair of free throws after his strong move to the basket against Kyle Kuric.
“That was great to see that go in,” Wiltjer said of Miller’s 3-pointer. “They were making some runs of their own and we were able to bounce back and make some big shots and that really helped us put them away.”
Wiltjer’s brief appearance proved productive, too, with Kidd-Gilchrist in early foul trouble.
The 6-foot-9 forward from Portland, Ore., played all 8 of his minutes before the break and made a pair of key plays after Louisville scored five consecutive points to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 31-28.
Teague found Wiltjer for a 3-pointer, then Wiltjer stole the ball from Chris Smith on the ensuing possession. Despite being teased as the slowest of the quick ‘Cats, Wiltjer pushed the play and ended up finding Doron Lamb, who was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give Kentucky a 35-28 halftime lead.
“I just wanted to make the most out of my minutes, play my play game and play confident,” Wiltjer said “I was fortunate to get a couple of baskets.”
That would be it for Wiltjer — and it was enough to prove just how effective Kentucky’s bench can be.