By LARRY VAUGHT
ARLINGTON — Before they became teammates at Kentucky, Julius Randle had played against Dakari Johnson in camps and all-star games.
“Of course, you’ve seen him play through AAU and high school basketball, and I always knew that he was a great a player, a very skilled player in the post,” said Randle. “He was younger than me, but I knew he was still a really good player.
“Coming into Kentucky, he was my roommate, and I saw all the hard work he put in and the adversity he faced throughout the season. But he just kept fighting and never gave up. He’s been a really good player for us and a big reason why we are here today.”
Where Kentucky is now is ready to play for a national championship Monday night against Connecticut after losing nine regular-season games, including three of its last four.
Johnson had 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting and seven rebounds — and even got one assist — in 18 minutes battling Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky. In the last three games, the freshman center is averaging 11 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and is 15-for-21 from the field.
“Dakari did a great job of guarding Kaminsky yesterday and everybody said he couldn’t do it, can’t move, he’s not fast enough. He’s fast. A lot of times he chooses not to be fast because it’s harder. But he’s fast. He’s quick enough. His feet move,” Calipari said. “But it’s really hard to do that when you’re seven foot — how much do you weigh?”
Johnson answered 260 pounds that brought laughter from Calipari.
“I’m proud of him,” the UK coach said.
It’s not exactly a dream come true for Johnson to be playing for UK, but he did live in Lexington for two years and attended middle school at Sayre before he moved to New York and then Florida.
“So he had lived in Lexington, Kentucky, so everybody said, ‘You got to keep an eye on this young man,’” Calipari said. “He was a real young player when I was recruiting Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist), and I had watched him and he just all of a sudden transformed himself. He was getting up at 6 a.m., he was working out, he changed his body, he became a guy that, he’s pretty fast. All of a sudden, his skill changed, except his free‑throw shooting. His skill changed.
“I went in and I’m, like, ‘You know what? We got to get this kid.’ We went into Florida, and mom was there, and he’s got a really strong mother and family. I think he always had something in his heart for Kentucky. I would think that because he had lived there, I would say. It was just us making sure it was right for him.”
It has been, even if it might not have been early. He not only was behind sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, but also freshman Marcus Lee. He went through an eight-game stretch in December and early January where he never played more than 11 minutes — and two games he barely played. However, he’s started 17 of the last 19 games and is averaging 5.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.
“It is unbelievable, especially as a freshman, just to be here. It is crazy. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and crazy we did this that fast. It’s just a great story. To be honest, I know a lot of people were doubting that we probably wouldn’t have a story to write,” Johnson said. “Just knowing a couple of weeks ago we lost to South Carolina and now getting to the Final Four and the championship game is amazing. I am just real confident right now and coach Cal is running a lot of sets for me and that gives my teammates even more confidence.”
That includes Cauley-Stein, who is injured and has become UK’s cheerleader and bench motivator.
“He has just kept on encouraging me. It’s like you have to play big. Just keep pushing and attacking is what he tells me,” Johnson said. “He helps point out things to me during games. He is still with us. I know he wants to play, but he is a huge help encouraging us. We are just doing this for him right now.”
Randle knew Johnson was frustrated early in the season with the lack of playing time and productivity.
“He is my roommate. I have seen the work he has put in and how hard he plays and how hard he works,” Randle said. “Just like any of us, it was frustrating not to play all he wanted. But Dakari never lost his composure or work ethic. A lot of us come from winning atmospheres and do not want to lose. Between the losses and criticism, he did a good job paying attention. At any given moment, Dakari could have let go of the rope, but all he did was work hard, not complain and set a good example for all of us.”
Johnson said giving up was never an option for him.
“We all came in with high expectations, but after we started losing games it taught us a valuable lesson that we can’t take anybody for granted,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t coast. We had to compete for 40 minutes. Then we finally came together as a team. We didn’t give up and believed in ourselves. We just kept on coming. We kept on fighting. Everybody on this team loves to fight and compete and that’s what we have to do for one more difficult game to get where we all want to be.”
Johnson said when Calipari finally made the players understand the value of concentrating on defense more than offense, the Cats took off and that has to be their focus Monday night.
“We know we are on a great run. We can cherish the wins we have, but we have one more left to finish,” Johnson said. “I think we just got tired of losing and once we listened to Coach, it changed for us. He told us not to focus on offense and then we started paying more attention to defense. Coach met with all of us and I think a lot of us were trying to do too much. Once we simpled it down, it helped all of us.
“We knew we had to change. The guys who don’t play helped us do that, too, in practice. They really got aggressive with us and sometimes even got the best of us. They are one of the key reasons we are here now and we just have to finish this off.”