Coming off the bench, Hawkins gets his chance and makes the most of it

broberts@herald-leader.comApril 6, 2014 

— Allen Feldhaus Jr. was fast asleep early Sunday when he heard his phone.

The Madison Central basketball coach picked it up — about 2:30 a.m. — and found a text message from Dominique Hawkins.

"Coach, this doesn't even seem real," the message read.

In Kentucky's dream run to Monday night's national championship game, Hawkins has been a nightmare for some of the best guards in college basketball.

He hardly played at all during the Southeastern Conference schedule — no more than five minutes in any game from Jan. 11 through the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

He didn't once complain.

"It's just so special, knowing the type of kid he is — how he handled himself even when he wasn't playing," Feldhaus said. "You look at him over there on the bench, and he's just got that contagious smile on his face all the time. There is just something special about that young man. I don't know what it is.

"You never, ever heard him say anything negative. He's handled it a lot better than a lot of other people have; put it that way."

Feldhaus acknowledged that he was one of those people.

Hawkins' high school coach was openly frustrated last year when his star player was playing better than anyone in the state — and doing it 30 miles from Lexington — yet no one from UK's staff came to see him play.

Feldhaus — a lifelong Kentucky fan — also was frustrated for most of this season, when Hawkins rarely found his way off the bench. He got a heads-up that things might change shortly before the Sweet 16 game against Louisville.

UK Coach John Calipari pulled Hawkins aside leading up to that night and said he might need Hawkins to check Russ Smith if the Cats got in trouble.

Hawkins spent 15 minutes hounding U of L's All-American, who rarely got a good look while Hawkins was on the court. During the two games that followed, when an opposing guard started going, Calipari went to his defensive stopper.

"It's so surreal right now," Hawkins said. "I woke up this morning and thought I was dreaming. ... Not many people are blessed to be able to make it to the national championship."

It was a little more than a year ago that Hawkins was leading Madison Central to the Sweet Sixteen title. He won the state's Mr. Basketball honor, and he received that UK scholarship offer he had always wanted.

But he had a tough time adjusting to his role at Kentucky.

At Madison Central, he had always been a scorer.

Hawkins took a season-high five shots against Mississippi State in early January — making just one — and he hardly played the rest of the regular season.

He kept a positive attitude, worked hard and waited. Then he got his chance.

"He's always been one of our best defenders," senior Jarrod Polson said. "Obviously, he didn't get to play as much as he probably deserved throughout the whole season. But it's a credit to him to be ready, especially during tournament time. ... He's been a huge part of this whole run."

Andrew Harrison said Hawkins has a toughness that "you can't even put into words." Alex Poythress said the freshman can always be counted on to guard the opposition's best perimeter player.

Most importantly, Hawkins' teammates say, he knows his role on this UK squad.

He's not out there to score 30 points, as he was in high school. He's out there to make sure someone else doesn't.

"I've got a lot of pride in myself when I'm playing defense," Hawkins said. "And I take it personal when somebody's able to score on me.

"I don't feel like I've been scored on many times in this tournament."

Connecticut will be the final test for these Wildcats. And Hawkins probably will find himself face to face with senior guard Shabazz Napier at some point Monday night.

Napier is another All-American — "a great, great player," said Hawkins — and a four-year veteran who already has won a national title.

Hawkins is just a freshman, but he's playing as if he belongs.

Feldhaus has watched and waited for this moment. He knew Calipari would find a role for Hawkins. It was just a matter of time.

"I really felt that when it got to crunch time — when they really needed that good defender — that number 25 would be called," he said. "And I'm so happy that his number has been called."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: UKrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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