Commentary

Veterans carry load for Kentucky in win

The Wildcat freshmen, including Queens native Doron Lamb, took a backseat in upset

Updated: March 26, 2011, 2:07 PM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- Doron Lamb, a native of Queens, N.Y., was the fifth and final Kentucky starter introduced at the Prudential Center on Friday night, prior to what turned out to be a classic NCAA regional semifinal between the Wildcats and the Ohio State Buckeyes.

That was the highlight of his first half.

Lamb -- a 6-foot-4 freshman and the team's third-leading scorer (12.6 points per game) -- was scoreless before intermission, taking just two shots despite playing the full 20 minutes.

But in the second half, Lamb drained two important treys -- both of which pushed Kentucky ahead -- in a game that featured 19 lead changes and 11 tie scores. And then fellow freshman Brandon Knight hit the biggest shot of them all, a well-defended jumper from the right wing with 5.4 seconds remaining that lifted Kentucky to a stunning 62-60 upset of the top seed in the entire Big Dance.

[+] EnlargeDoron Lamb
Richard Mackson/US PresswireQueens native Doron Lamb scored just six points, but they came on a pair of big second-half 3-pointers.

"I didn't want to force anything," said Lamb in the Kentucky locker room after the game. "Let the game come to me, and get my teammates involved. It felt great to be back close to home, and all my family could see me. But the biggest thing was to win the game."

Lamb said this was the first time in his career that his entire immediate family was present for one of his games. They witnessed a tug-of-war for the ages that they'll all certainly remember for a long time -- even though Lamb wasn't on the floor for the final few minutes.

Coach John Calipari went with the hot hand down the stretch -- namely junior forward DeAndre Liggins, who had 15 big points off the bench, including another clutch shot in the final minute.

Lamb said it did not bother him that he wasn't out there playing at the end: "It wasn't hard. I don't really care, in or out -- as long as we win the game, I'm good."

This Kentucky team -- which will face No. 2 seed North Carolina on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. ET, with a trip to the Final Four on the line -- has been led all season long by three freshmen: Lamb, Knight (17.4 ppg) and Terrence Jones (16.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg). Those three, despite their youth, are the team's three leading scorers.

None of them even cracked double figures on Friday night. Knight hit the game winner but finished with just nine points. Jones had eight, and Lamb just that pair of triples.

Yet the Wildcats beat the No. 1 team in the country -- a team that had beaten its first two NCAA tournament opponents by a combined 61 points.

Go figure?

"Brandon made that shot. Terrence came up with a big rebound late. Doron made two nice 3s," Calipari said. "But those veterans did what they had to do to win this game."

Besides Liggins, the other vet who came up huge was the team's lone senior -- 6-foot-10 forward Josh Harrellson -- who finished with a team-high 17 points and 10 rebounds.

"Our freshmen were OK today," Calipari said. "Our veteran players, who were not significant a year ago, who have now taken on this team -- that's why we're still playing."

"Those veterans, they know how to play in these close games, in these situations," Lamb said. "My teammates played a helluva game today."

The freshmen did make a major contribution that won't show up on the stat sheet -- being part of Kentucky's swarming perimeter defense, which forced the second-best shooting team in the country (49.9 percent) into a 19-for-58 night from the floor (32.8 percent).

"Nobody talks about their defense," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "That's the best team we played all year."

The veterans may have gotten Kentucky over the hump this time around. But if the Wildcats want to reach their first Final Four since 1998, odds are these three freshmen are going to have to play much better than they did Friday night.

Odds are they will, too.

"I learned a lot from this game," Lamb said. "You've got to play a tough 40 minutes, anybody can win, and upsets happen."

Yes, Doron, they certainly do.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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