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March 31, 2012NEW ORLEANS - Kentucky's small forwards helped deliver a big victory on Saturday night.
Darius Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were their best down the stretch of the Wildcats' 69-61 win over arch rival Louisville in the national semifinal.
Battling foul trouble, it took nearly 30 minutes before Kidd-Gilchrist scored.
The freshman made up for lost time in the last 10 minutes - scoring nine points. He scored back-to-back baskets - the second of which was a dazzling dunk off a dribble spin move - after Louisville had rallied to tie the score at 49.
Two more transition dunks by Kidd-Gilchrist in the final minute sealed the win.
"Mike is a huge part of the team," Miller said. "Us missing him the first half really hurt us. You seen he dominated the game. He plays with high intensity. We feed off of that."
The senior Miller, meanwhile, had 13 points, including a critical three-pointer from the right wing with 5:07 remaining. That shot, which forced a U of L timeout, gave UK a 58-51 lead and some valuable breathing room from the hard-charging Cardinals.
UK coach John Calipari critiqued Miller earlier in the game for fading away on his missed three-pointers. After the big make, Calipari hugged Miller as he came over to the bench at the timeout. He'd stepped into the shot and stepped up big for the Cats.
"That's our leader," said Kidd-Gilchrist, who called Miller "a big brother." " I think it was a huge three for all of us."
Miller made two free throws the next time down to make it 60-51, and the Cards were in serious trouble.
With Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist at their best in the clutch, the Cats proved to have too many weapons for the Cards.
UK's five starters and top reserve Miller, all of whom average at least 10 points, each took between six and nine shots. Calipari often says that with a player as talented as Miller, UK has "six starters."
And Miller is regularly a go-to player.
"When it comes to knocking down big shots when a team is making a run, he's usually the one that shoots it and makes it," UK's Terrence Jones said. "... It's tough to say that anybody else who does that is better than him."
Miller played in his 151st UK game on Saturday, tying Wayne Turner for the most all-time. He'll break the record on Monday in the national title game against Kansas.
Miller has been through a lot in his four years with the Cats, starting with an NIT appearance as a freshman on Billy Gillispie's last UK team. "It was terrible," Miller said.
As a sophomore he started 32 games, and Calipari's first team made the Elite Eight. Last season, he started 37 of 38 games, and the Cats made it to the Final Four.
This season, he's started only 11 times, dutifully coming off the bench while Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb are in the first five. But UK is in the title game.
"My hat is off to him; he's the most unselfish player I've ever coached," Calipari said, gushing about Miller more than he probably ever has.
The coach said he's getting calls from NBA teams interested in Miller "for the simple fact that he's got to be a great kid."
When Miller is out, that often means Kidd-Gilchrist is in, and down the stretch, the Cards also had UK's freshman small forward to deal with.
U of L coach Rick Pitino said the Cards did a good job containing Kidd-Gilchrist, who ravaged Louisville for 24 points and 19 rebounds in a Dec. 31 meeting in Lexington. The Most Outstanding Player of last week's South Regional in Atlanta had only four rebounds - none offensive - in 23 minutes.
Kidd-Gilchrist said he was frustrated to pick up two first-half fouls on charging calls. He played only six minutes before halftime.
But to keep him down for an entire game? It's quite a task.
"It's hard (to do)," Kidd-Gilchrist. "I love this game of basketball.
"... I'm the energy guy on this team. I have that role, and I did it well."
It's particularly difficult to stop Kidd-Gilchrist when he has opportunities to finish in transition, as he did to close the game.
"I don't think there's another wing that does it better," said Jones.
And as he did on Saturday, Kidd-Gilchrist said he tends to save his best for last, when games are on the line.
"I love the bright lights," he said.
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