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UK’s Veterans Never Gave Up on Themselves

Admit it. You wanted DeAndre Liggins gone.

On that November, 2008 night in Las Vegas, when he refused Billy Gillispie’s order to check into the Kansas State game, choosing instead to sit on the bench and pout, you threw up your hands in exasperation and demanded that the freshman be kicked off the team. Such conduct is inexcusable, you might have reasoned, Liggins putting his own massive ego ahead of the team.

No?

Well, then, surely you wrote off Josh Harrellson as a waste of a scholarship – a bust. Little more than cannon fodder for the bigs on last year’s team. Why would John Calipari keep him around, otherwise? He didn’t recruit Harrellson. Couldn’t he take that scholly and go find another recruit lighting up somebody’s Top 10 list?

No?

You HAD to have given up on Darius Miller at some point this season. A great high school player, wonderful kid, who would defer to the guy who delivers your newspaper if given half a chance. It was understandable why he would hang back last season and let the superstars take the shots and amass the glory, but this was supposed to be HIS year. And here he was, in Oxford, Mississippi, passing up a chance to take the game-winning shot. He’ll never be the player UK needs him to be, you might have concluded.

No? None of the above? If that’s really so, you might have been one of the few who saw this coming. But even if you believed in the UK veterans with all your Big Blue Heart & Soul, how could you have predicted a run to the Final Four?

The Wildcats played their best basketball down the stretch, and the three freshmen clearly responded to Calipari’s coaching and cajoling. But the veterans made just as many crucial plays that lifted Kentucky to its first Final Four trip since 1998.

For all the charm Harrellson and his story have brought to this madness, it was Liggins who might have been the most surprising. Gillispie forgave Liggins that night; in fact, Liggins played 27 minutes the next night in the win over West Virginia. But at the end of the season, after UK announced it was looking for a new coach, Liggins all but told the media that if Gillispie had returned to UK, Liggins would not. Calipari gave him a fresh start, and the player made the most of it.

Liggins brought energy to the floor last year – literally. He earned praise from Calipari throughout the season for the way he would throw himself on the hardwood, going after loose basketballs. But his minutes were limited. Not so, this season.

Whether he was in the starting lineup or coming off the bench, Liggins has done it on both ends of the floor. He can score, but more impressively is a lock-down defender, which might be a surprise to fans and media, but not Liggins.

“In high school I wasn’t a scorer. I was always the guy who did all the intangibles,” he said prior to the Ohio State game. “I knew I wasn’t going to be a big-time scorer. I was a defender who did all the dirty work.”

“There’s not a coach at any level that doesn’t want a defender who will go after the ball and play with energy,” Calipari said. “That is a skill, just as passing the ball and shooting is a skill.”

Fortunately for the Wildcats (and their fans), when he first arrived at UK, Calipari didn’t have to rely on advice from others when it came time to make a decision about keeping the troubled sophomore.
“When I first took the job, everybody said, ‘You gotta get rid of DeAndre’,” he said. “I had recruited him in high school, and I had decided to (wait) before I made any kind of decision. And I am so happy that he’s on my team and he’s somebody going to war with us.”

And with the North Carolina game teetering in the balance, it was Liggins who proved his coach had chosen wisely. He made the plays that locked down the victory for the Wildcats.
Brandon Knight had drained a three-pointer from in front of the UK bench that gave the Cats a 70-67 lead with three minutes left. Carolina came back and made it a one-point game on a tip-in by Tyler Zeller with 1:52 remaining. That’s when Liggins took over.

Knight, eventually named Most Outstanding Player in the East Regional, made a rare mistake, missing the front end of a one-and-one. UNC came down the court steeled by the confidence it had built by erasing an eight-point deficit. The Tarheels had a chance to take their first lead since they were up 4-2 with 18:11 left in the first half.

Point guard Kendall Marshall had the ball at the top of the key, and took off for the basket. He had designs on a layup that would put his team on top and bring the Powder Blue nation to full throat. Liggins had other ideas.

He stretched out his 6-foot-6 frame and blocked the shot. Harrellson cleared the rebound. There was exactly one minute left, and the Wildcats needed to score.

Liggins took care of that, too.

He squared up and fired what proved to be the fatal dagger at the ‘Heels. The same man who missed 25 of his last 30 attempts from beyond the arc last year had spent countless hours in the gym, working on his shot. Calipari more than once had praised Liggins by claiming that, if his team ever needed a last-second triple, he would turn to the junior from Chicago.

In truth, Calipari this season often DID need an heroic try for a three, but called upon either Lamb or Knight. Still, he had confidence in Liggins, and it was rewarded, when Liggins drained a three-pointer with 37 seconds left. Carolina was done.

Harrison Barnes hurried down the court and tried to answer with a long shot of his own. Miller, who had picked up an assist by feeding Liggins for his decisive trey, blocked it. Once again, Harrellson corralled the rebound.

It was Harrellson who figured to be the weak link in the Ohio State game. Kentucky matched up evenly with the Buckeyes, except in the low post. OSU’s Jared Sullinger, the enormously-gifted freshman, had laid waste to the Big 10 this season, helping lead the Buckeyes to the league title and overall number one seed in the NCAA tournament.

Harrellson had had a storybook season of his own. The national media that assembled both in Tampa and Newark had learned that the affable senior had played just 88 minutes last year; had a predilection for jeans shorts (“jorts”); and had endured the abuse of his former coach which included banishment to a toilet stall during halftime of a road game, and being forced to ride home that in the equipment truck.

He had crammed three seasons’ worth of thrills into one, which figured to end on this night.
It didn’t.

Harrellson showed early that he would not back down, locking up the freshman the first time Sullinger touched the basketball. And later in the game, as he was falling over the end-line, Harrellson went old-school on the young Buckeye, slamming the ball off Sullinger’s head and out of bounds. Instead of charging after the Kentucky big man, Sullinger rubbed his head in amazement. Message received, if not understood.

Both finished with double-doubles; Sullinger with 21/16, to Harrellson’s 17/10. But in terms of the way the game played out, the late-bloomer battled the phenom to a draw, enabling the Cats to play the top-seeded Bucks into the final seconds, when Knight’s jumper gave Kentucky a 62-60 upset win.

Fortunately for the Big Blue Nation, Miller didn’t wait until midway through his senior season to come around. Ever since the loss at Mississippi, which was followed by a Tweeted apology from the former Mr. Basketball, Miller has been a different player, unafraid to take the shot when needed.

He had three huge moments in the second half against North Carolina. With about 16 minutes left, he nailed a jumper and drew the foul; his ensuing free throw helping to move the Wildcats back out to an 11-point lead.

Two minutes later, it was an eight-point game when Harrellson was fouled in the act of sinking a basket. He missed his free throw, but there was Miller, sneaking in to claim the offensive board; it led to a jumper by Knight and another 10-point lead.
It took UNC only 30 seconds to cut the lead to six, but there was Miller again, draining a triple to give his team more breathing room.
The lead had vanished after Zeller’s free throws tied the game at 67 with 3:18 left. On Kentucky’s ensuing possession, Miller racked up the most important assist of his career, when he fed Knight for the three that put the Wildcats ahead for good.
Miller started all four NCAA tournament games last season, averaging 22 minutes per contest. He even went for 20 in the 2nd-round win over Wake Forest, but was quiet otherwise. Liggins averaged 18 minutes per game, and scored a total of 18 points. Harrellson? He averaged two mop-up minutes per game in the first three, and never got off the bench in the Elite Eight loss to West Virginia.

They labored behind a quintet of future NBA first-round draft picks, awaiting their turn. And when it came, they made the most of it, far beyond what any of us thought they might.

Revenge has been a theme throughout UK’s improbable run. The Wildcats beat regular season champion Florida in the SEC Tournament championship game; the Cats knocked off WVU in the regional semi-finals – payback for last year’s tourney loss; the Ohio State win avenged not one but five NCAA tournament losses to the Buckeyes; and prior to Sunday Kentucky had played UNC only twice in the Big Dance, both in regional finals – and lost.

But for the three upperclassmen, who have watched their first-year teammates garner a majority of the headlines both this year and last, this story line is more about redemption, and a reminder to the rest of us:
Be careful when it comes time to give up on a player. Today’s bust could be playing in tomorrow’s Final Four.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)


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