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By LARRY VAUGHT
This time DeAndre Liggins played the way that Kentucky needs the junior to play to make the team the best it can be.
After scoring only two points and playing a season-low 15 minutes Tuesday against Mississippi State following a subpar outing at Vanderbilt before that, Liggins returned to the player that has endeared himself to UK fans in SaturdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s surprisingly easy 90-59 victory over South Carolina.
Just consider this sequence in the second half: Liggins slapped the ball loose from Damontre Harris; he drove left, hung in the air and hit from six feet; he hit the floor trying to draw a charge from guard Bruce Ellington; he faked a 3-pointer, stepped in and nailed a 15-foot shot; he made Ellington take a 3-pointer over him that was off the mark.
And all that came in about 90 seconds as the energetic Liggins was back maintaining his poise, playing patiently and causing havoc on defense rather than rushing, taking bad shots and having lapses in judgment as he had the previous two games.
He finished the game with 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field, three rebounds, two assists and one steal in a more Liggins-like 28 minutes. He also did not have a turnover, another important statistic when he plays well, and obviously did not let it bother him that coach John Calipari chose not to start him.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The played well without me. I cheered them on,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Liggins of UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 15-0 spurt to open the game. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been tried and stressed out a lot. I came off the bench last year and gave us a spark. I knew I could do that again.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Against Mississippi State I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t aggressive, picked up two early fouls and felt like I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t help my team. I told myself I was going to come out and play with a lot of energy, defend and make easy plays.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He did all that and it was too bad Liggins couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t stay on the court at halftime when he was inducted into the Frank G. Ham Society of Character along with athletes from other sports in recognition of their character and off-court contributions.
Remember, this is the same player who refused to go into a game his freshman year for coach Billy Gillispie and then was suspended the first 10 games last year by coach John Calipari. To now be recognized for his character and willingness to help others is an even better story than the way he played.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“DeAndre is just like a lot of kids in our program. This is an opportunity for them to change the way they look at their life. We have kids come and have the opportunity to use athletics to change their life,Ã¢â‚¬Â said UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart. Ã¢â‚¬Å“DeAndre has done that and made a big turn in the direction of where his life is going. Is he all the way their yet? No. But he has made some huge steps.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is one chance to get a college degree and pursue that other life. He has worked so hard to get from his background in Chicago to get to this spotÃ‚Â and have a chance to settle in here and do things he has done here and perform like he has performed. There is a lot of good in that.Ã¢â‚¬Â
ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also a lot of good in what heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s doing on the court. Just ask South Carolina coach Darrin Horn.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think LIggins is good. Obviously it is a joke for anybody to refer to those two guys (Liggins and Darius Miller) as role players. They are both really good.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Or ask Calipari, who said Liggins had Ã¢â‚¬Å“great energyÃ¢â‚¬Â this game.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Of all the kids I have coached, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know if anybody has tried to please me more than him,Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said.
On this day, though, Liggins deserved to be pleased with himself both because of his play and the honor he received.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I hope DeAndre understands the difference it can make in his life as he goes forward in just the little things he is trying to do,Ã¢â‚¬Â Barnhart said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“DeAndre plays hard, he is a fan favorite around here and he is going to have a family he is going to want to take care of and this is a critical piece for him to take care of as he goes forward.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“As we all know, basketball might not be there your entire life. I hope he is beginning to understand that. It looks like he is beginning to put some of those pieces of the puzzle together and hopefully he can carry it through to the next stage of his life because heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s already made a remarkable turnaround.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Liggins does understand Ã¢â‚¬â€ and appreciates what the Society of Character says about him to others.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is a pretty big deal. I worked hard for it. It means a lot to me and to everybody else because I got it. I just try to be a good person to everybody and work hard and whatever I do, go hard at it,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins, who wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t sure what friends even meant when he started getting text messages about the honor, said.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Nobody would have predicted this about me two years ago. But that is what happens. You make mistakes, learn from them and get better. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I have done.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He knows the honor might not fit the perception some have of him. He hopes that changes now.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“A lot of people hopefully will look at me now in a different perspective. They think I am bad guy and this and that and truly I am not like that at all. I am a good guy, a humble guy, a caring guy. I love all my teammates and everybody around here loves me, too,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins said.
And even with as well as he played, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why the halftime honor he received says more about how Liggins has matured since his arrival at UK than any play he could ever make or ever will make.