Kentucky hopes to pop the celebratory champagne with a New Year's Eve victory at archrival Louisville. But first came a victory over Coppin State Tuesday night that could be summed up as Miller Time.
At long last, Darius Miller dived for loose balls, surely gave himself a few floor burns and generally exerted himself. All that hustle set a we're-not-dreaming-of-sugar-plums tone as Kentucky routed Coppin State 91-61.
"Loved it, loved it," UK Coach John Calipari said when asked about Miller letting fans see him sweat. "I loved it. That's as good as he's played in a long time. And the main thing was, he got aggressive."
Miller scored only one first-half basket and finished the game with seven points. So what? This game, especially the opening 20 minutes, showed how much impact a player can have without scoring.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Long implored, cajoled and begged to be more aggressive, Miller finally responded.
Inside the first six minutes, he twice dived to the floor for loose balls. Each time, Kentucky scored with the extra possession, the first on a short jumper by DeAndre Liggins and the second a dunk by Josh Harrellson off a Brandon Knight lob.
Miller, the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball who seemed unwilling to adopt a take-charge attitude, credited nothing beyond Calipari's constant nagging for more passion.
"Coach has been staying on me," he said. "I'm starting to build different habits in practice."
Diving on the floor translated into staying on the floor.
"I left him on the court because he was playing so well and aggressive," Calipari said. "He got a little tired, I think, at the end, and he got beat on some dribbles and some of that stuff.
"But the reality of it is, if he'll go rebound and battle like that, you're going to see his game blossom. That's what we're all looking for."
Terrence Jones, who had made only 13 of 37 shots in the three most recent games, led Kentucky with 18 points. Knight added 17 points and a career-high eight assists. Doron Lamb also scored 17. Harrellson and Liggins chipped in with 10 each.
"We tried to take one of their guys down, but they had too many guns," Coppin State's venerable coach, Ron "Fang" Mitchell, said. "They weren't 22s either."
Coppin State (4-6) concentrated on Lamb, who scored a career-high 32 points against Winthrop three days earlier.
"He took care of his business," Mitchell said of Lamb's relatively quiet 17 points. "We didn't take care of our business."
Coppin State played without its leading scorer, Michael Harper, who contracted food poisoning. And it looked that way as the Eagles missed their first 11 shots en route to a 6-for-31 first half (19.4 percent).
Coppin State did not score a basket until the 12:13 mark, when Jordan Lee sped to a fast-break layup. That reduced Kentucky's lead to 11 at 15-4.
Later in the half, Miller flashed his passing skills. After driving into the lane, he flipped a pass to a cutting Jones for a dunk.
Barely a minute later, Miller threaded a fast-break bounce pass through multiple defenders. Lamb took the pass and scored while being fouled.
Miller, who always avoids self-congratulations, downplayed the passing.
"I don't know," he said. "They crash into the lane any time any of us drives. You look for the open man."
Miller's four first-half assists left him two shy of a career high. His six rebounds put him on pace to eclipse his career high of 11. Foul trouble prevented him from reaching those records.
As the second half began, Kentucky seemed intent on blowing out Coppin State. The Cats made their first four shots, building a 50-23 lead and prompting a Coppin State timeout.
A three-pointer by Miller with 16:03 left was UK's third of the half, which equalled its first-half total from beyond the arc.
Kentucky, which made 11 of its first 13 shots after halftime, led by at least 21 throughout the second half.
Miller nearly provided a fitting punctuation when he took a lob from Liggins and appeared in position to throw down a reverse dunk. Instead, he sensibly made sure of the catch, returned to the floor and then put in a reverse layup.
Crowd favorites Hood and Harrellson provided the capper with back-to-back dunks.