Mark Story

Its season slipping away, Kentucky again finds an unsung hero

UK’s Jemarl Baker just wanted to make an impact

Kentucky basketball’s Jemarl Baker talks to the media about playing a key role off the bench in UK’s 62-56 win over Wofford in a second round game of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2019. The Wildcats lay next week in Kansas City.
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Kentucky basketball’s Jemarl Baker talks to the media about playing a key role off the bench in UK’s 62-56 win over Wofford in a second round game of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2019. The Wildcats lay next week in Kansas City.

With the Kentucky Wildcats’ basketball season in peril Saturday, we got example 7,977 why it is good to be UK.

The Cats were facing an accomplished, tough-minded Wofford hungry for an NCAA Tournament round of 32 upset in a game that screamed danger for the favored Wildcats.

Star forward PJ Washington was still on the bench with a cast on his sprained left foot. Freshman standouts Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro were having difficulty getting the ball in the hoop.

Johnson was in foul trouble.

At most schools, not having your three most talented offensive players at their best — or, in Washington’s case, at all — is the recipe for a season-ending defeat.

Part of what makes Kentucky, well, Kentucky, however, is that the Wildcats so often seem to have an unanticipated trump card waiting to be played.

On Saturday, Jemarl Baker was that player.

Getting a career-high eight points and some hard-nosed defense from Baker, NCAA Tournament Midwest Region No. 2 seed Kentucky (29-6) survived No. 7 Wofford (30-5), 62-56, before a sellout crowd of 14,250 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

“We coach every kid like they are a starter. That’s how they are trained,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “What (Baker) did today — and he made a basket or two, and we needed them — but what he did defensively meant he was prepared for this moment.”

With the victory, UK will advance to Friday’s Midwest Region semifinals at the Sprint Center in Kansas City against the winner of Sunday’s late contest between No. 3 seed Houston (32-3) and No. 11 Ohio State (20-14).

It seems safe to say that the Wildcats would not be going to Kansas City had it not been for Baker.

The 6-foot-4, 192-pound product of Menifee, Calif., was a spring addition to Kentucky’s 2017 recruiting class. At the time, Baker was billed as an outside-shooting specialist.

He never got to show that last season after a knee injury and subsequent surgery sidelined him for all of 2017-18. Then, another knee injury cost Baker much preseason practice time before the current year.

After finally getting on the floor this season, Baker has mostly played a support role.

“Just being out so long with injury, it is not easy to step out on the big stage and perform. It’s been a grind,” Baker said. “It’s for sure been hard. But I’ve had a great supporting cast in my family and my teammates keeping me to continue to work hard.”

On Saturday, with UK in jeopardy, Baker finally reaped the fruits of his effort.

Fouled on a three-point try, he sank all three shots to cut a 24-18 Terriers lead to three with 4:38 left in the first half.

Just 1:45 before halftime, Baker buried a 15-foot jumper to pull the Cats within 24-22, part of a 10-2 run that allowed Kentucky to lead 28-26 at the intermission.

After Wofford opened the second half with a 9-4 burst to take a 35-32 advantage, Baker buried a trey from the right wing to tie the game. Though it was close until the end, UK never trailed again.

As much as UK needed those baskets, Baker’s contribution on the other end of the floor was every bit as vital. On a day when Kentucky harried normally three-point-potent Wofford — making 41.8 percent of its treys entering the game — into 8-of-27 shooting behind the arc, Baker was a gritty and vital part of that effort.

“Jemarl came off the bench and was huge for us,” said Herro. “And he didn’t just make shots. He played great defense on their shooters.”

Afterward, in a happy Wildcats locker room, what Baker’s teammates seemed most pleased about was that a guy who has had to push through so much adversity since coming to Lexington had taken advantage of a chance to shine in the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament.

Baker “was amazing,” said Johnson. “I’m so happy for him, to see him perform like that. Words can’t describe how happy I am. ... He bounced back in one of the biggest moments of the year when we needed it the most.”

Baker’s unexpected heroics in March Madness harkened back to the 2014 NCAA Tournament round of eight. Then, the Wildcats had just lost seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein to a season-ending injury.

Plucked from inactivity off the Kentucky bench, little-used forward Marcus Lee produced 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots that Michigan never saw coming in a victory that sent UK to the Final Four.

Time will tell where the current Wildcats’ season ends up.

On Saturday, Kentucky found another unanticipated hero.

“I was ready for it,” Baker said of his shot.

Because he was, UK is headed for KC.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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