John Clay: Miller the right man at the right time for Kentucky

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 31, 2012 

NEW ORLEANS — All game long, John Calipari had been riding his in-state senior.

Nothing new there. Cal was yelling. Cal was pleading. Cal was all up in Darius Miller, telling him to rebound, to defend, to stop falling away on his shot.

But now, after Louisville had rallied to tie the score with 9:11 remaining, and Kentucky had squirmed back in front by a couple of baskets, surely the Cats needed something extra to squeeze out some separation.

Then, there it was, Kentucky turning a Louisville miss into a fast break, point guard Marquis Teague roaring down the floor with the basketball, sensing a familiar presence from behind just in time to feed his trailing teammate.

This time, Miller didn't fade. He rose. He shot. He stepped right into it. He knocked it down.

It made the score 58-51 Kentucky with five minutes remaining as Rick Pitino's head dropped down, the Louisville coach asking for a timeout.

Before Miller could even get to the bench, there was his head coach, up in his face again, only this time with a smile. Miller answered with a hug.

"I don't know if he hugged me," Calipari said, "but I know I hugged him."

At that point, you just knew that Kentucky was going to win this game, that Kentucky was going to its first national championship game since 1998.

And so it is: Cats 69, Cards 61.

"It was," said Miller afterward, "an emotional game."

Yes, Anthony Davis showed why he is the national player of the year, scoring 18 points and grabbing 14 rebounds.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored key baskets to start the deciding run. Terrence Jones appeared out of the clouds late to grab rebounds and throw down baskets.

But it was that Miller Moment that put the stamp on this Dream Game II, Final Four version, with Kentucky Blue and Louisville Red flooding Bourbon Street.

The game itself may not have matched the hype. It may not have been terribly well played. It may not have been spine-tingling. It may not have been dramatic.

But for the winners, the tournament's overall No. 1 seed, it was a must-win, not just to beat the archrival 80 miles down the road, but to advance one game beyond last season.

"I don't think we felt the pressure," Jones said. "But I know we wanted to win."

And survive.

Calipari paced the sideline of the raised court — his stool nothing more than a prop — jumped and twirled and danced.

Late, when the contest was still hanging in the balance, there was Davis uncharacteristically pointing and yelling during a timeout, thumping his chest to the point where he had to be all but tackled by a teammate.

"We wanted this game," said Doron Lamb.

Louisville wanted it, too. Make no mistake. Rick Pitino is still Rick Pitino. Give him five long days to prepare and he will have his team knowing everything there is to know about your team. Kentucky shot 60 percent the first half, yet led by just three, 31-28, with 1:30 left when Gorgui Dieng completed an old-fashioned three-point play.

Even when a Kyle Wiltjer three-pointer helped extend the margin to seven at the half, 35-28, Louisville did what it did in Lexington back on Dec. 31.

Down 15 in the first half then, the Cards tied the game at 40. Down by 11 at 45-34 in this game, the Cards rallied to tie it at 49.

Moments later, there was the Miller hug. And more. After the timeout, with 5:04 left, U of L missed a shot in traffic. Quickly, there was Miller getting fouled at the other end, then sinking the free throws for a nine-point Kentucky lead.

It was finally breathing room in a week where the fans on both sides had surely found it hard to breathe.

"We played good," said Calipari afterward. "We didn't play our best."

They hope their best comes Monday. This is a business trip, after all. That's been this young but mature team's mantra.

They can always come back to New Orleans. They'd rather leave as champions.

Monday night they want to close the deal on a season and bring home a banner. But they had to win this game first, with all its hype, and buildup, and passion.

"I'm sure they really wanted it really bad, with it being Louisville," Miller, the man from Maysville, was saying afterward of his team's fans. "(But) our main goal is to win a championship, not beat a certain team."

True, but on this day, in this game, they did have to beat a certain team, one from the same state.

They had to step into it, and knock 'em down.

Helped by the in-state senior, that's exactly what they did.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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