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By LARRY VAUGHT
ATLANTA â€” Not many things upset Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The Kentucky freshman doesnâ€™t worry about individual statistics or media attention. If UK wins, heâ€™s happy. If UK loses, heâ€™s not. Thatâ€™s why stats donâ€™t matter to him.
However, he was â€œmadâ€ going into Fridayâ€™s NCAA Tournament South Region game with Indiana. No, it was not because the Hoosiers beat No. 1 Kentucky 73-72 in mid-December, one of only two losses the Wildcats have. Instead, he was upset over a ESPN report by Chad Ford Thursday that Kidd-Gilchrist had already decided to put his name into the NBA draft and would leave UK.
â€œI was mad. It was a false statement. Iâ€ˆknew it was a false statement. I love my teammates and everything like that, but it was a false statement. I think it was a distraction. It wasnâ€™t true at all,â€ said Kidd-Gilchrist.
Indiana paid the price as Kidd-Gilchrist had 24 points â€” despite not scoring until almost 14 minutes into the game â€” and had 10 rebounds. He was 10-for-10 at the foul line and had one assist.â€ˆMost importantly, he showed the mental and physical toughness Kentucky needed to survive after national player of the year Anthony Davis was out of the game in foul trouble. Kidd-Gilchrist got to the rim and loose balls.
He didnâ€™t will Kentucky into Sundayâ€™s South Region final against Baylor by himself, but his role was large.
â€œOne of the things I was on Michael about is I want him to offensive rebound. You have no responsibility back, go get the ball. And he did that today,â€ Calipari said. â€œAnd the other thing we kept telling him is attack the basket. Go to the basket, get to the rim. He’s a good shooter.â€
At one point, Indiana backed off Kidd-Gilchrist, who came into the game mired in a scoring slump. He had just 16 points in the previous three games and was 7-for-16 from the field and 2-for-5 at the foul line.
â€œThey didn’t play him. I don’t know if you noticed, they didn’t have a man on him,â€ Calipari said.
The UK coach told point guard Marquis Teague to â€œgive it to him.â€ He hit a shot. Then another one. Then he drove, scored and got fouled. Seven points in less than two minutes and his slump was over.
â€œMichael Gilchrist, you’re our energy guy. Go after every offensive rebound. Fly up the court in transition,â€ Calipari said.
Kidd-Gilchrist said he was â€œkind of mad about itâ€ when Indiana dared him to shoot.
â€œI was just feeling it I think.â€ˆI was rebounding the basketball. Thatâ€™s what Iâ€ˆdo best is rebound and put it back in. Thatâ€™s an easy way to score. That is my bread and butter I think,â€ Kidd-Gilchrist said. â€œAnt (Davis) was out, so I had to step up and thatâ€™s what I did. It was just a (scoring) slump. I am all good now. I get down on myself a lot I think. I love to have fun on the basketball court. Thatâ€™s what I did today.â€
Calipari might have motivated Kidd-Gilchrist a bit, too, when he left him on the bench part of the first half.
â€œHe’s such a wonderful kid. I try to tell these guys, what do you do to help us win when you’re not making baskets?Â Tell me what you do,â€ the Kentucky coach said. â€œHe does about 10 different things. We’ve been building him up all week to tell him, I knew he was going to be great.Â I told him: â€˜You’re going to be great in this game. Go and get offensive rebounds. You’re going to be great.â€™
â€œHe worked his butt off all week. He spent extra time. I’m in the office at night, he’s in the gym. We’re winding it down, and he’s stepping it up. He is just a wonderful player to coach. He’s one of those special, unique players.â€
Davis, who finished with nine points and 12 rebounds despite playing only 25 minutes, used another word to describe Kidd-Gilchrist.
â€œMike’s a spectacular player. He brings a lot of energy, score the ball, rebound. Coach Cal told him, go out there and rebound the ball, especially offensive rebounding. That’s what he did today. He played spectacular, knocked down shots, scored when we needed him, got the and ones, went perfect on the line and he had 10 rebounds along with 24 points. So that says it all about Michael right there,â€ Davis said.
It does. Or almost says it all.
â€œHe is playing great on defense and rebounding. He started off a little bad shooting, but he was great at going to the basket. When he is playing like that he is a great player and we become a great team,â€ freshman Kyle Wiltjer said.
At one point in the second half, Calipari called Kidd-Gilchrist to the sideline, whispered in his ear, patted him on the back and then smiled broadly.
â€œHe told me just to have fun. I love coach Cal to death. Heâ€™s … I donâ€™t know how to even put it in words. Heâ€™s everything to us. Thatâ€™s it. He means everything to all of us. That meant a lot coming from him,â€ Kidd-Gilchrist said.
Not long after that Kidd-Gilchrist stopped at midcourt to pound his chest as UK was inching closer to a second straight Final Four berth.
â€œI think that was just a spur of the moment thing for me. Itâ€™s for my teammates, to get them hyped,â€ the UKâ€ˆfreshman said. â€œI had a lot of fun. I was just happy about that.â€
But he wasnâ€™t happy the night before over the ESPN report. He says thatâ€™s why he immediately made comments on Twitter saying the report was false even though no one will be surprised if he does leave for the NBA considering heâ€™s projected as a top 10 pick.
So where did the report come from?
â€œAndy,â€ Kidd-Gilchrist joked as he saw ESPNâ€™s Andy Katz listening to his answer. â€œI donâ€™t know where it came from. It was not true at all. I am really not worried about it. I love my teammates and everything like that. And winning basketball games. Thereâ€™s nothing to worry about.â€
Worried about the Final Four?
â€œI am not thinking Final Four. Just Baylor,â€ he said.
How about paying any attention to Louisvilleâ€™s postseason success?
â€œNo.â€ˆLouisville is a good team. Thatâ€™s it,â€ Kidd-Gilchrist said.
Kentucky is also a â€œgood team.â€ Actually, Kentucky could be destined to be a great team if it can win three more games and UKâ€™s first national title since 1998. The next step is beating Baylor, but without the resiliency of Kidd-Gilchrist Friday, thereâ€™s a good chance there would not be a Kentucky game today because the Cats season could have end.
â€œI love this team. We donâ€™t want that to end, so whatever it takes to win, Iâ€™ll do it,â€ he said.