Mark Story: Knight in clutch burnishes his own legacy

Knight's cavalcade of clutch shots lifts him out of Wall's shadow for good

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 28, 2011 

NEWARK, N.J. — During the University of Kentucky's pre-season media day, it only seemed every question directed at Brandon Knight contained a variation on the same theme.

So, Brandon, how do you plan to replace John Wall? How much pressure do you feel replacing John Wall?

Over and over, Knight calmly answered that he felt no pressure to replace the great Wall, would simply concentrate on being the best Brandon Knight he could be.

On Sunday, Knight emphatically ensured his own UK basketball legacy will always stand in its own bright light.

With its freshman point guard scoring a game-high 22 points, Kentucky outlasted North Carolina 76-69 Sunday in the finals of the NCAA Tournament East Regional. In guiding UK back to college basketball's final weekend for the first time since 1998, Knight did what no Kentucky point guard — including Wall — since Wayne Turner had:

Direct a Kentucky team to the Final Four.

"I can't really say it's sunk in yet," Knight said in a jubilant Kentucky locker room. "I know it feels good."

A year ago, UK's season crashed and burned with an unexpected loss to West Virginia in the same East Regional finals. That day, Wall and teammates were confounded by a trapping 1-3-1 zone.

Against a furious late North Carolina rally, Knight played a huge role in making sure UK's return to the Final Four was not again derailed.

Down eight at halftime, down as many as 11 in the second half, North Carolina climbed all the way back and tied the game at 67 on a pair of Tyler Zeller free throws with 3:18 left.

Suddenly, the UK blue cheering sections in the Prudential Center were filled with faces white with tension. A game that had seemed in hand most of the day suddenly had that "slipping away" feeling.

Which is when the stone-cold Knight drained a long trey for a 70-67 UK lead. Though it took DeAndre Liggins' heroics in the final 1:02 (a blocked shot and a cold-blooded three-pointer) to seal the deal, Kentucky never trailed again.

"We get it tied," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said later, "and Brandon makes a huge three right in front of their bench."

Over and over Sunday, as Carolina made runs at Kentucky's lead, it was Knight who supplied UK's answer. Fourteen of his 22 points and three of his five three-pointers came in the second half.

"He stepped up and made great shots," said Carolina's Dexter Strickland.

Even in the rich history of Kentucky basketball, has any player ever had a clutch-shooting jaunt through an NCAA Tournament like Brandon Knight in 2011?

The guy who hit the game-winners against Princeton and Ohio State said his timely shooting throughout Sunday's victory over North Carolina was more taking what he was being given as opposed to a conscious effort to take shots in critical moments.

"Mostly, it was flow of the game," he said. "I wasn't coming down the floor saying, 'OK, we need a big shot here.' I was just playing my game."

What made Knight's plethora of clutch shots under one-and-done tournament pressure even more impressive is that he had several late-game misses during the season in close UK losses at Alabama, at Florida and at Arkansas.

After missing two shots that might have beaten the Razorbacks, Knight said he "got back in the gym and worked extra hard on my shot," he said. "I really didn't lose confidence that I could make those (pressure) shots. I just told myself, 'I'll hit the next ones.'"

Said UK forward Darius Miller: "I think he learned from those plays (in the season). He never lost any confidence."

After Knight had been named East Regional MVP, he found himself inside a joyous UK locker room where Jay-Z (but no Beyonce) was a surprise guest.

"I didn't really know what to say," a smiling Knight said of meeting the hip-hop mogul.

In the NCAA Tournament where Brandon Knight once and for all established a John Wall-free identity in UK basketball lore, his clutch play has done all the talking for him.

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