ATLANTA — If you've wondered how Doron Lamb developed the cool that has allowed him to emerge as Kentucky's leading scorer (17.7 points per game) in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, you might say he's been coming through in pressure situations since he was in elementary school.
Growing up in Queens in New York City, Lamb had the basketball bug bad. Trying to channel her little boy's hoops enthusiasm in a constructive way, Brigitte Grant developed a rewards system.
If a grade-school-aged Doron made a 100 on a spelling test in school, his mom would take him to see New York City prep phenom Sebastian Telfair play in person. If he didn't ace the test, Lamb saw no ball game.
"It was fourth or fifth grade," Lamb said Saturday inside the Georgia Dome while previewing Kentucky's NCAA Tournament South Regional finals matchup Sunday with Baylor.
Never miss a local story.
"Day before I took the test, my mom would test me (at home)," Lamb says. "This time, I got a 100. So she said if I didn't make a 100 the next day at school, I can't go to the game the next day."
It was a situation that called out for a clutch performance.
"I had to get a 100, and I did," Lamb said, smiling. "My mom took me to see Telfair and I had a great time."
As Kentucky has made it halfway home on the journey it hopes leads to NCAA title number eight, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Lamb has been acing all tests — yet doing it without much acclaim.
In UK's three NCAA tourney wins so far, the sophomore hit Western Kentucky for 16 points, Iowa State for 16 more and then had 21 in UK's frenetic 102-90 victory over Indiana.
Against the Hoosiers, what was even more impressive was how Lamb scored. With IU defenders running hard at the guy considered UK's most lethal stationary jump shooter, Lamb kept putting the ball on the deck and attacking the rim.
"When I first saw Doron, that's all he did was drive," said Kentucky forward Terrence Jones. "In high school, he drove, hit floaters. I never really saw him shoot jumpers."
On a team that features the star voltage of freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, it's understandable why Lamb — who plays with a poker face and a cold efficiency — tends to be overlooked.
In a way, it has always been so.
As a freshman in high school, Lamb chose to attend New York's Bishop Loughlin High School. He was in the same class as another heralded young hoopster, JayVaughn Pinkston (now at Villanova).
"They had us like we were Batman and Robin," Lamb said. "I thought I was Batman. The coach, he had me as Robin. I was very upset about that."
Eventually, that led Lamb to leave Bishop Loughlin and play his final two seasons at Oak Hill Academy, the famed prep school in rural Virginia.
"It was really boring out there," Lamb said of the Mouth of Wilson, Va., school. "We never left campus. The cellphone service didn't work out there. And we weren't allowed to have our cellphones on campus, anyway."
With nothing to do other than go through a highly regimented daily class schedule — "we even had to go to school on Saturdays," Lamb says — and watch movie DVDs, the guard took to spending his free time in the gym.
"I'd try to make 500 shots a day," he said.
The shooting stroke Lamb refined in those days has been much on display through Kentucky's 2012 NCAA Tournament march.
After struggling with his shot in the SEC Tournament, Lamb has hit 18 of 30 field goals, including eight of 12 three-pointers, in the tourney that really matters.
UK is apt to need Lamb's radar dialed in against Baylor, whose length and athleticism is close to a match for Kentucky's.
Cats Coach John Calipari says Lamb is just scratching the surface.
"I've been hard on him," Cal said. "But I say to him, 'I think you're a lottery pick. But go do it. Go take it.' ... What I'm saying to him, with more of a motor, he's as good as any guard in the country."
Nerves shouldn't be a problem for Lamb on Sunday against Baylor. He was a key component on last year's Kentucky team that made the Final Four, after all.
Then there were those long-ago, high-stakes spelling tests. More pressure: Trying to make college basketball's biggest stage or scoring a 100 so mom would take him to see Sebastian Telfair?
"The Final Four," Lamb said. "I just want to go out there tomorrow and have fun. Try to go to the Final Four for the second time in my second year of college."
For UK, that would be passing a very big test.