Mark Story: Kentucky boasts a six pack of inspiration

Cats blossoming at just the right time

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 30, 2011 

Kentucky lined up as My Old Kentucky Home was played after Kentucky defeated North Carolina, 76-69, in the finals of the East Regional in Newark, N.J., on Sunday to advance to this weekend's Final Four in Houston.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

Here's the quandary in thinking about the six players who are primarily responsible for carrying the University of Kentucky to the cusp of an improbable eighth NCAA championship.

It's hard to decide which has the most inspirational story.

Has to be Josh Harrellson, right?

The guy Billy Gillispie infamously banished to the bathroom (at halftime at Vanderbilt) two years ago and who John Calipari hardly used last season has been the feel-good individual story of the 2011 NCAA Tournament.

In four games of this NCAA, Harrellson has produced 59 points and 36 rebounds. All last season, he accounted for 28 points and 27 rebounds.

Can't get much more inspirational than the person no one expected to do much succeeding beyond all expectation.

Then again, maybe Darius Miller is the most inspirational story.

For much of the first 21/2 years of Miller's career, the ex-Mason County star seemed held back by a self-imposed passivity. That reached its zenith Feb. 1 in Oxford against Mississippi when Miller passed up not one, but two open shots with UK clinging to a late one-point lead. Ultimately, those decisions allowed Ole Miss to win on a Chris Warren buzzer-beating three-pointer.

That low moment seems to have been Miller's turning point. Since then, he's shown aggression, had a stretch of 10 straight double-figure scoring games and won the MVP award in the SEC Tournament.

Yet his most impressive moment came in a game in which he scored only three points. With UK locked in a taut, two-point game against West Virginia with only 4:11 left in the NCAA round of 32, Miller found himself open and with the ball. To that point in the game, he was 0-for-5 from the floor.

Earlier in his career, he almost assuredly would have looked to get rid of the ball. In this case, he didn't hesitate. He rose and drained a crucial three-pointer.

Can't get much more inspirational than one who has conquered one's own demon.

Then again, maybe Brandon Knight is the more inspirational story.

The current NCAA tourney has had no more clutch shooter than Knight. Game winner against Princeton. Game winner against Ohio State. One big shot after another in the victory over North Carolina.

All these Big Dance big shots have come off the hand of the same player that missed late-game, pressure shots at Alabama, at Florida and (two) at Arkansas.

Can't get much more inspirational than one who has the steel in the gut to keep taking game-deciding shots after spending much of the season missing them.

Then again, maybe DeAndre Liggins is the more inspirational story.

In his first year at Kentucky, the 6-foot-6 Liggins was mostly a loose gun. Miscast as a point guard, his definitive moment came when he took 16 shots (made three) in a loss at Mississippi. His sophomore year began with an unexplained nine-game suspension.

Back then, who would have believed Liggins could become the heart of a successful team?

He has.

When UK was wobbling in its NCAA opener against Princeton, it was Liggins' aggressiveness that helped the Cats avert disaster. When Cat-killer Joe Mazzulla seemed to have West Virginia headed toward another tourney upset of UK, Liggins shut him down.

Against Ohio State, it was Liggins who made the plays under pressure that put Knight in position to win the game for Kentucky. Against North Carolina, it was Liggins who had the two game-sealing plays, a blocked shot and an ice-cold three-point clincher.

Can't get much more inspirational than a player who develops beyond anyone's expectation for them.

Then again, maybe Doron Lamb is the more inspirational story.

Lamb is a scorer. It's in his DNA. Yet since he injured an ankle at the end of Kentucky's SEC Tournament semifinal victory against Alabama, the freshman has not had a double-figure scoring game since.

Yet rather than pout, Lamb has continued to play hard on an ankle that may not be 100 percent, and hit two big three-point shots in Kentucky's victory over Carolina.

Can't get much more inspirational than a guy who fights through injury and finds ways to contribute.

Then again, maybe Terrence Jones is the more inspirational story.

Jones was the break-out star of the early part of the Kentucky season. Yet, in the NCAA Tournament, the 6-8 freshman is averaging "only" 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.

I spent the early part of the NCAAs thinking Jones needed to turn it up for UK to succeed. Yet what if it is Jones' willingness to restrain his shot total that has allowed his teammates to blossom and made Kentucky a better all-around team?

Can't get much more inspirational than a potential one-and-done NBA lottery pick willing to sacrifice individual numbers for the greater good.

On a team that has exceeded most all expectations, just don't try to figure out which key player has the most inspirational story.

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