TAMPA, Fla. — For two years, the hype and (most of the) star power around Kentucky Wildcats basketball has been about freshmen.
Wall, Cousins, Bledsoe.
Knight, Jones, Lamb.
At times, it has seemed like veteran Kentucky basketball players are in the witness protection program.
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Which brings us to UK's 2011 NCAA Tournament opener Thursday in the St. Petersburg Times Forum.
Princeton, the No. 13 seed, was threatening to give the phrase "one and done" a whole other connotation in UK basketball discussions. As the clock ticked inside the final 10 seconds, the fourth-seeded Wildcats found themselves tied 57-57 with the brainiacs from the Ivy League.
It being Kentucky, it was a freshman — guard Brandon Knight — who saved the Cats with a game-winning, driving layup with two seconds left.
Kentucky 59, Princeton 57.
Yet the only reason Knight was in a game-winning position and the only reason UK's season is still alive are the UK veterans. On a day when Kentucky's celebrated freshmen Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Knight did not have their "A" games, the trio of Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins bailed the Cats out.
Said Kentucky Coach John Calipari: "Our veterans, DeAndre Liggins in the second half and Darius Miller in the first half and Josh throughout kept us where we had a chance to win."
Miller, the 6-foot-7 junior, followed up his Southeastern Conference Tournament MVP performance by single-handedly keeping Kentucky afloat early by scoring 15 of UK's 34 first-half points.
"We were struggling to score," Miller said, "and I was aware of it. But they felt like I had a mismatch so they were running (plays) through me."
After halftime, Miller (17 points, four rebounds, three assists) scored only two more points.
Which was when Liggins and Harrellson took over.
Liggins had only one field-goal attempt (a made three-pointer) in half number one. He wasn't thrilled about that. "I felt like I should have gotten the ball a little bit more," Liggins said.
In half two, the 6-6 junior from Chicago was in full attack mode. Twice he set up Harrellson for layups with the drive and dish.
Liggins drained a trey from the right wing with 6:29 left in the game to put the Cats up 53-48. He made a tough, not-to-be-denied drive to the basket for a layup that put UK ahead 57-55 with 1:58 to go.
"His energy changed a whole lot (in the second half)," Knight said of Liggins. "He did a great job going right at them, and it gave us a big lift."
For UK, the biggest veteran lift came from the Cats' sole senior.
When Princeton edged ahead 44-39 with 12:13 left, Harrellson saw his college hoops career flash in front of his eyes.
"That second half, we got down five, my mind-set changed," Harrellson said. "I'm like, 'this could be my last game. I am not letting that happen.'"
Harrellson's lay-in (off a Liggins pass) with 11:09 left cut Princeton's lead to 44-41. Another layup from No. 55 made it 47 Kentucky, 44 Princeton at 8:13.
A Harrellson follow shot at 3:58 put the Blue ahead 55-51.
For the game, the 6-10 Harrellson hit seven of eight shots, had 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
"He was a beast today," Liggins said of Harrellson.
It was a far cry from a season ago when Harrellson logged six minutes, two points and one rebound total in Kentucky's four NCAA tourney games.
UK needed such stellar efforts from its vets because its freshmen looked like what they were — guys playing for the first time under NCAA Tournament pressure.
Jones had 10 points and only two rebounds and started the second half on the UK bench. Knight shot 1-for-8 and spent long stretches of the second half on the pine, too. Lamb had seven points but three turnovers.
There are two ways to look at what happened Thursday. Optimists will say Kentucky dodged its tournament bullet and is now a dangerous team. Pessimists will see signs that a team relying on so many first-year players is ill-constructed to make a deep tournament run.
This much is certain: There would be no debate — and no NCAA tourney rematch with West Virginia — if it weren't for Harrellson, Liggins and Miller.
Give it up for the vets.