Mark Story: Marcus Lee, UK's forgotten All-American has day to remember

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 30, 2014 

INDIANAPOLIS — It's good to be Kentucky.

For most college basketball programs, losing a shot-blocking 7-footer to injury one game before you compete for a Final Four berth would be crippling. At Kentucky, you just pluck a little-used McDonald's All-American off your bench.

With Willie Cauley-Stein's ankle injury keeping him out of Sunday's NCAA Tournament Midwest Region championship game with Michigan, John Calipari gave freshman big man Marcus Lee a pep talk.

Lee has spent most of his first season in UK blue as the "forgotten McDonald's All-American." Calipari signed six in his lavishly praised 2013 recruiting class. Five of them have been starting throughout the NCAA Tournament. Lee, the non-starter, has mostly watched.

After scoring 17 points in the Cats' season opener against North Carolina-Asheville, Lee had scored 28 points the entire rest of the season before Sunday.

Yet with Cauley-Stein sidelined, "Coach (Calipari) was telling (Lee) he needs to be ready," Kentucky senior guard Jarrod Polson said. "Coach even told Marcus he expected him to have a good game."

Lee did much better than good.

Completing an epic three-game run of NCAA Tournament thrillers, No. 8 seed Kentucky (28-10) earned its 16th Final Four appearance with a 75-72 victory over No. 2 Michigan (28-9) before 33,551 in Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Cats' winning margin came on a cold-blooded three-pointer by Aaron Harrison with 2.3 seconds left in the game. UK got another double-double from Julius Randle (16 points, 11 rebounds) and a strong game from James Young (13 points on 5-for-7 shooting).

Yet, in a sense, the story of the game for UK was Lee. In 15 high-impact minutes, he had 10 points (5-for-7 shooting), eight rebounds (seven offensive) and two blocked shots.

Once Cauley-Stein was injured during Friday's round-of-16 victory over Louisville, Lee said his teammates had been pumping him up to play.

"My team, they gave me the most love," he said. "They said, 'You've got to step up. I said, 'I've got it.'"

When Lee entered the game early in the first half, Kentucky was off to its characteristic slow start, down 11-4, and seemed back on its heels.

Over a stretch of 1:57, Lee produced a follow dunk shot (at 14:15), then another (13:15), and then a third (12:18) tip dunk.

Lee's slams unleashed a wave of energy in a Kentucky-heavy crowd and seemed to loosen up his teammates. It definitely loosened up Lee. A guy whose offensive repertoire, by reputation, includes little more than dunking even made a nice drive in the lane for a basket late in the first half.

With Cauley-Stein and his 106 blocked shots sidelined, the biggest concern for Kentucky was its ability to protect the rim. In half two, Lee gave UK some defensive swag, viciously slamming a shot attempt by Michigan guard Derrick Walton Jr., then posing over the fallen Wolverine.

After the game, about the only thing dividing a joyous UK locker room was the question of whether or not his teammates were surprised over Lee's outburst.

Surprised. "Oh my God, yes," said Alex Poythress. "... Marcus was incredible, man. Attacking the rim. Every rebound. He stepped up big."

Not surprised. "I wasn't surprised at all," said Dominique Hawkins. "I know Marcus Lee, he's one of the McDonald's All-American players. He just sits behind Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Dakari (Johnson), two really good players."

Surprised. "Obviously, it's surprising," said Polson. "He hasn't done it all year. But that's Marcus' game right there, what happened today, getting blocks and tip dunks. That's what he really loves to do."

Not surprised. "We knew he was capable of doing that," Dakari Johnson said. "But he took it up to another level today."

You can add Michigan to the surprised side of the ledger. Wolverines Coach John Beilein said Lee had played so little (126 minutes before Sunday) UM had a scant scouting report on him. "We had very little on him," Beilein said. "But he does one thing really, really well, and that's he plays above the rim."

So there you have it. A guy with a big high school reputation who barely played as a college freshman came off the bench to help lift a wildly hyped team that, three weeks ago, seemed one of the biggest disappointments of the college season into the Final Four.

"I never did lose confidence," Lee said. "I just waited for a chance."

It's good to be Kentucky.

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

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