Fearlessness makes Knight Kentucky's go-to guy in clutch

Calipari says that fearlessness, work ethic make him top cat in clutch

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 31, 2011 

Five, four ...

The clock is ticking down to the final seconds and the team is losing by one point.

Three, two ...

It's time to take the do-or-die shot.

One ...

You shoot. It's good!!!!

"I think every kid does that, when they're growing up, outside shooting around," Kentucky guard Brandon Knight said this week. "5-4-3-2-1, shoot it. And then try to make it. And then when you make it, go inside."

Knight has been playing that childhood game for real this Kentucky season. Again and again, he's had the ball in his hands in the final seconds of a game that will be decided on a last-second shot.

For Knight, the NCAA Tournament has been the childhood game brought to life, complete with the winning shot. His driving bank shot in the final seconds beat Princeton in Kentucky's first game in Tampa, Fla.

When the scene shifted to Newark, N.J., Knight made a pull-up 15-footer to beat Ohio State.

Interestingly, the winning shots against Princeton and Ohio State came in games in which Knight did not shoot well. He made only four of 18 shots (one of seven from three-point range) in those games.

And guess who is Kentucky's worst shooter, by percentage, in the NCAA Tournament? It's Knight, who has made only 35.7 percent of his shots (20 of 56) and 34.6 percent of his three-point attempts (nine of 26).

Knight did not embrace a reporter's suggestion that he possesses a special quality that makes him a much better shooter at the end of close games.

"I am not sure," he said. "... I just thank God for being able to make shots like that.

"... When it comes to crunch time, a couple seconds left and the game on the line, I focus in and make sure I am making the right decisions."

After the victory over Ohio State, UK Coach John Calipari linked the clutch shooting to how hard Knight works to improve. Calipari also noted the player's fearlessness.

"He is not afraid to miss this shot," the UK coach said. "If you really want to be that guy, you have no fear. 'If I miss the shot, I miss it.' ... Life will not end. And so I feel comfortable putting it in his hands because I know of his work ethic."

Knight, who seems to keep his emotions in check off and on the court, acknowledged the times he's missed the clutch shot. The game at Florida. The repeated misses at Arkansas at the end of regulation and the end of overtime.

"Alabama, too," Calipari playfully interjected.

Almost without exception, Kentucky does not call timeout before putting the ball — and the game-deciding responsibility — in Knight's hands. "That's why we practice," Calipari said of the preference not to call timeouts.

Too many unexpected scenarios can arise. The opponent can switch defenses or put a different defender on Knight.

Calipari is content to let the opposition expect Knight to be the key player to contain in those situations. "If we are in another game and it is late, that coach will know we're playing through Brandon," the UK coach said.

Generally, UK gives Knight the ball and runs some sort of pick-and-roll play. This gives the freshman plenty of options.

"Shoot it myself," he said. "You have the roll guy. You always have spot-up guys. The pick-and-roll is making reads and seeing what you have."

Kentucky's opponent in the Final Four, Connecticut, recruited Knight and future UK teammate Doron Lamb.

Knight did not jump at the chance to play for the Huskies, which led the UConn coaches to turn their attention elsewhere.

"So we went after a kid we thought we could get, named Kemba Walker," UConn Coach Jim Calhoun said. "He turned out OK, to say the least."

No doubt, Kentucky is also happy with how things turned out. Knight has become the latest in a growing line of standout point guards to play for Calipari. That list includes Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and now Knight.

Noting that Wall and Evans were like Knight in terms of taking a lot of shots as high school stars, Calipari said all three "had to figure out 'How do I do this within this team.' Derrick was a little different. We had to get him to shoot.

"But I'm really pleased. Really pleased."

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