Mark Story: Big-Game Mike strikes again for Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 25, 2012 

ATLANTA — To say Game On to the wildest sports week any Kentuckian is apt to ever experience, there was a small detail that had to be handled first.

For there to be Kentucky vs. Louisville in the Final Four, there had to be Kentucky over Baylor in the NCAA Tournament South Regional finals.

So Michael Kidd-Gilchrist took care of it.

MKG scored 17 points in a 10:08 stretch of the first half to ignite a 37-12 UK blitzkrieg to end the first half. That first-half scoring rampage allowed the Cats (36-2) to score an 82-70 victory Sunday over Baylor (30-8) before 24,035 in the NCAA Tournament round of eight.

"I've never played better than that," Kidd-Gilchrist said of the 10-minute stretch when he electrified the Georgia Dome. "I was in the zone."

Actually he was in the open court. Over and over. And once there, he was lethal.

When Baylor's Quincy Miller made a three-pointer from the top of the key with 16:45 left in half one, the Bears led 10-5. It was the biggest deficit UK had yet faced in the NCAA Tournament.

So MKG went to work.

At 15:11, he muscled in a tough 4-footer. At 12:24, he dropped in a layup. He went coast-to-coast for another layup at 11:31. Kidd-Gilchrist threw down a dunk at 10:58.

Next, he drained a three from the right wing at 9:15. At 6:42, he hit a contested 6-footer in the lane.

The 6-foot-7, 232-pound freshman from Somerdale, N.J., finished up his scoring binge with two sets of two free throws at 5:25 and 5:03.

By that time, UK led 38-17 (other Kentucky players were scoring, too).

Though Baylor showed some second-half fight — and UK got a brief scare when Anthony Davis went down after banging knees with Perry Jones III — UK's 15th all-time Final Four bid was essentially secured by the end of Kidd-Gilchrist's surge.

"Mike had a lot of success out in transition, and we just kept feeding him," Kentucky point guard Marquis Teague said.

Said UK power forward Terrence Jones: "When I see Michael running, I believe something good is going to happen."

For one so young, Kidd-Gilchrist — who fouled out with 19 points and five rebounds — has shown a remarkable capacity to impose his will on the biggest of games.

MKG hit North Carolina for 17 points and 11 boards. He had 18 and nine at Indiana. Against Louisville in Rupp Arena, he went for 24 and 19.

"He wants to win so bad, he just does whatever it takes," said Teague of Kidd-Gilchrist.

Said UK swingman Darius Miller: "Mike is one of the most competitive people I've ever played with."

In Atlanta for the South Regional, Kidd-Gilchrist snapped out of a recent scoring slump, having failed to score in double figures in seven of 11 games.

Against IU in the round of 16, Kidd-Gilchrist burned the Hoosiers for 24 points and 10 rebounds. Then he did in Baylor with his one-man, first-half transition game.

There was exactly zero shock value when MKG was named South Regional MOP — Most Outstanding Player.

"A great feeling," Kidd-Gilchrist said of the honor. "But I'm not done yet. On to the next game."

It is definitely on.

For the first time ever, it's UK vs. U of L in the Final Four.

Louisville fans can draw strength from some numbers.

While John Calipari and Rick Pitino are 8-8 against each other as college head coaches, Pitino is 4-0 vs. Cal in post-season tournament contests (2-0 in NCAA tourneys when Ricky P. was at UK and Cal at Massachusetts; 2-0 in Conference USA Tournaments when Pitino was at U of L and Calipari at Memphis).

The last four Kentucky seasons have ended with a tournament (NCAA or NIT) loss to a Big East foe. Louisville is in the Big East.

Kentucky fans can draw strength from some facts.

Louisville shot 32.3 percent in its 69-62 loss to Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Dec. 31. Other than Russ Smith, the Cards were really bothered by UK's defensive length.

The Cats have not gotten any smaller since New Year's Eve.

Kentucky just has more talent. At nbadraft.net, there are six Wildcats projected to be taken in the first 44 picks of the 2012 NBA Draft. There are no Louisville players on the mock-draft list.

In our state, games won't get much bigger than Kentucky-Louisville in the Final Four.

Which means UK will have one other advantage, too: It has Big-Game Mike.

"I wish we could play right now," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I can't wait."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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