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Even in midst of poor game, Kentucky's Brandon Knight had his team's, coach's confidence

Brandon Knight gets a high five after his winner, his only basket of the game.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Brandon Knight gets a high five after his winner, his only basket of the game.

TAMPA — He had options. He could pull up for a jumper. He could drive for a layup. He could pass to an open man. The only option he never considered was failure.

And, when you think about it, that little insight might be the most remarkable component of a game-winning shot that saved a season for the University of Kentucky on Thursday.

For Brandon Knight had every reason to doubt himself. I mean, wouldn't you?

He was a 19-year-old playing in his first NCAA Tournament game. He was two seconds away from finishing the worst offensive afternoon of his career. And, to top it off, when he had been given the ball in the final seconds against Arkansas this season, he failed to deliver. That was true in the Alabama and Florida games, too.

So why — with the Wildcats potentially facing their most embarrassing tournament loss in a generation — would coach John Calipari put the ball back in his freshman's hands?

"Guys like him," Calipari said, "aren't afraid to miss."

And so you have the defining moment in what was already a memorable season for the point guard from Fort Lauderdale's Pine Crest High.

Tied and desperate with 34 seconds remaining against No. 13 seed Princeton, the Wildcats did not go to Darius Miller, who had a game-high 17 points. They did not work the ball inside to Josh Harrellson, who had converted 7 of 8 shots.

Instead, they killed 25 seconds or so, then ran a pick-and-roll with the guy who had missed all seven of his shots in the role of hero.

Knight got a pick from Darius Miller, then drove past Kareem Maddox and went off the backboard for a layup with two seconds remaining.

"My confidence would never waver after missing a shot," Knight said. "I work hard to be put in a situation like that. I don't have a problem missing those shots. Sometimes you miss them, and sometimes you make them.

"Even if I miss 20, I'm still going to have confidence when I take the next one."

Knight had already decided he did not want to attempt a jumper. Not because he was 0-for-7, but because a layup was a safer shot and would make a tip-in easier.

He had not ruled out the possibility of passing the ball off, but he decided to attack the basket when Princeton's defenders switched off after the pick play and the 6-8 Maddox ended up covering the 6-3 Knight.

"The play wasn't even necessarily designed for me," Knight said. "On a pick and roll, you come off, you read and you see what happens.

"I had a bigger guy on me, so I thought I had a good chance of going by him."

No one talked in the huddle about Knight's poor shooting night. No one suggested the possibility of alternate plans.

"Everyone knew we were going to get a bucket right there," Miller said. "Brandon is a tough guy. He was fighting it, but he came through when we needed it."

Which is pretty much the way the season has gone for Kentucky.

One of the most venerable programs in the nation had five players chosen in the first round of the NBA draft, including No. 1 pick John Wall.

And it was up to Knight to fill Wall's spot in the lineup from the opening tip of his first game in Lexington. And Knight responded by leading the Wildcats in scoring, including 28 consecutive games in double figures coming into the NCAA Tournament.

He's a different player than Wall. Knight is more of a scorer, but not as impressive running the offense. In some ways, that made Thursday's game even more special.

Instead of pressing the issue when his shots weren't falling, Knight was content to hold back and allow his teammates to carry the load.

His eight field-goal attempts were the fewest he has taken since December, although some of that was because Calipari kept him on the bench more than usual.

Still, with the season in jeopardy, Calipari not only put the ball in Knight's hands, but he gave him the option of what to do with it.

"The best part," Knight said, "is it meant they had faith I could make the right decision."

When it was over, when the upset had been avoided and the Wildcats were on their way to a date on Saturday with West Virginia, Knight was called to the middle of the court for a television interview.

As he approached the camera, Calipari stepped in front of Knight and placed a hand on the back of his young guard's neck.

"He told me that was a big-time shot," Knight said. "And that he had faith in me."

Why would anyone think otherwise?

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Even in midst of poor game, Kentucky's Brandon Knight had his team's, coach's confidence 03/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 10:15pm]
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