By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s 73-67 win over Vanderbilt was certainly significant Tuesday night because it assured UK of at least a share of the Southeastern Conference championship and kept alive hopes to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament — and possible opening games in Indianapolis.
However, as memorable as overcoming a 19-point deficit midway of the first half was, most Kentucky fans will remember something else for the Senior Night game for Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder. They are going to remember Willis proposing to girlfriend Keely Potts during the pregame ceremony.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said Willis told the team before the game what he was going to do.
“They gave him a standing O and hugged him in the locker room,” Calipari said.
When he saw Willis actually propose, Calipari admitted he got emotional.
“I looked at that and it’s like one of your sons is getting married. And I started getting teared up and I talked to myself a little bit,” Calipari said.
The coach also got excited when Willis hit his only field goal — a 3-pointer to give UK its first lead at 59-57. He also had eight rebounds and three blocked shots.
“How about the three he made? Whatever we’re going to call this, not his wedding day, his proposal day. Do you have a proposal day? Do you have that? I’ve never heard of that? Engagement day, and he makes that three. That was a big play and that’s after missing a couple and missing free throws, but he made that three. That three was a big play,” Calipari said.
It was but Willis said he had been thinking about his pregame big play for about a year.
“I just wanted it to be in the right moment and I wanted it to be special and a surprise type thing. I figured this would be good enough and it was just the right time,” the UK senior said. “I was trying to figure out the right time to do it and with our busy schedules we don’t have that much free time. I figured this would be an important enough day since it’s a big moment for the both of us being senior night. I just wanted to share it with everyone.”
He had talked to Keely’s father, John Potts, about his plan and said the Potts family had done a lot for him over the last few years.
“They’ve helped me through a lot of things and they’re just a really good family,” he said.
A few other friends knew, but not many. His best friend on the team, Dominique Hawkins, didn’t know until Willis told the team before the game.
“I didn’t know about it all. He didn’t tell me about it. I don’t think he told anybody but his parents. He did a good job keeping that a secret. I’m not good at keeping secrets anyway, so he probably shouldn’t have told me anyways,” Hawkins said.
Teammate Isaiah Briscoe reacted like a child on Christmas morning when Willis proposed and Potts said yes. He looked more excited than Willis.
“I don’t have no words for that. I’m happy for him. That’s my boy. I’m happy for him, but that’s crazy,” Briscoe said. “I’m not going to say I wouldn’t do it. I don’t have the (courage) to do that. Not in front of all those people. I couldn’t. I even asked him too. I’m like, ‘Yo, you nervous?’ because before the game Coach is like, ‘Derek’s going to propose.’
“Then when we were going out for the game I just tapped him like, ‘Bro, you nervous a little bit?’ He’s like, ‘No, I’m good.’ That’s Derek for you. He did what he had to do. Congratulations to him.”
Willis was confident Potts would accept his proposal. Anyone who knows the couple would have understood why.
“She was pretty nervous. At first, she was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I was like, ‘Well, yeah. I’m doing it right now.’ She was just nervous and she was emotional. She’s been emotional the whole week just about Senior Night and all that stuff. I went to go put the ring on her finger and her hands were (shaking). I was like, ‘Just stay still for just a second so I can—I’m nervous too.’ It was a pretty cool moment for me and it meant a lot,” Willis said.
“I’m still kind of up on all the adrenaline and stuff. Probably when I get back to the house and kind of hang out and chill out for a minute, that’s probably when it will all hit me. That’s usually how it goes for me with all that stuff. I was just trying to stay in the moment and I also had a game to play too. I was focused on making this moment special for me and my girlfriend, but also have a duty to play basketball and come out to win.”