TAMPA — Brandon Knight insisted he did not know that he had not made a field goal in seven attempts.
“I knew I had missed shots. I don’t know why. You can’t make every shot. I can’t tell you why I make shots or why I miss. You just have to believe that the next one will go in,” said Knight.
His driving lay-up with :02 left here Thursday gave Kentucky a 59-57 victory over Princeton that kept UK’s season alive.
“I just had to keep my dribble alive, make sure I got inside to get the ball off the rim at least and see what happened,” Knight said. “It was just a pick-and-roll play and I had to take advantage of it. I thought I could go, so I did.”
Calipari had wanted either Knight or Darius Miller, UK’s most consistent scorer in recent weeks, to take the game-winning shot. However, Princeton switched when Miller screened for Knight and the freshman guard who was 0-for-7 from the field thought he could beat Kareem Maddox, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, to the basket — and did.
“I thought the shot was going in,” Knight said.
Just a bit earlier he was way short on a 15-foot shot with UK leading 57-55. At the time UK coach John Calipari screamed for a foul.
“I got hit on the elbow, but it wasn’t called so you just have to keep playing,” Knight said.
Princeton players complimented Knight for the game-winning play. Maddox said he “blew by me” and guard Dan Mavraides said it was a “tough lay-up with a difficulty of 10” that Knight made.
“Brandon is a good player, so you have to get a good effort to stop him. But he's a player. In the last seconds you expect players to make plays, so...,” Princeton guard Douglas Davis, who guarded Knight much of the game and also scored 13 points, said.
“Kareem is our longest, biggest defender. There's no one else I would rather have on him driving to the basket in that late-game situation. Before that he was 0 -for-7 but he made the one that counted. It was a great shot; you've got to tip your hat to him,” Mavraides said.
Princeton coach Sydney Johnson had no second thoughts about his team’s defense on the final UK possession.
“It was a tough, tough shot by a kid that we had bottled up pretty much the whole game. Good player, I'm sure coach Cal is pretty pleased with how he was able to come back down the stretch. We felt like we had done an amazing job on him, and he just had one more play to make, which he did,” Johnson said.
The Wildcats were not surprised at what Knight did despite his 0-for-7 shooting performance before that play.
“He didn't make as many shots as he normally did, but we always have confidence in Brandon. He's matured so much. He's a different level of point guard than he was earlier in the season,” senior center Josh Harrellson, who had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, said. “So we always have confidence in him no matter how bad a game he's playing. We always have confidence that he'll make a big play when we need one.
“Coach ran a play and it didn't work out like it was supposed to, and he took his man off the dribble and he made a big time lay-up that we needed in traffic, and it was a big play for him.”
Miller was not surprised Knight scored, either.
“He's one of the best shooters I've seen, so he's not going to continue to miss. We're not worried about that at all. He made a big play, especially for a freshman. He made a big play in his first NCAA (Tournament) and finished. So it was a very aggressive play, a very tough play,” Miller said.
Calipari never thought of not having Knight in the game on the final play even though he had taken him out when UK was trying to protect a 57-55 lead when Princeton scored with 37.5 seconds left.
“We were going on a side pick-and-roll, and I was going to let those two (Knight and Miller) figure it out. And they switched. What they usually do in that situation, they go man-to-man, and with about 10 seconds they pull into a zone, so that's what we talked about,” Calipari said. “Because they were going to do that, we were going to ball screen either way whether they were zone or man to make it simple for our guys.
“And they switched, and he took his man one-on-one. I had a timeout that I could have burned at that time, but I'm like looking at it like this kid wants to make this. You could just see that he wanted to make that play, and that's why I just let it happen, let it unfold.”
Knight had chances to make game-winning 3-pointers at Ole Miss and Florida earlier this season and missed each time. Calipari never let that impact his thinking.
“I'm with him every day. There's no one that works harder, spends more time or believes in himself based on his work ethic. He's the first one in the gym and the last one to leave and he goes at night,” Calipari said. “I have no problem putting that ball in his hand because he's made that shot in that gym by himself many times, counting it off.
“Today at the shoot-around this morning he waited for the clock to run down, and with two seconds to go, he let it go, and as it went through, the horn sounded. That's how he is. There's no one else — the other guy that's been playing pretty well was Darius and that's why I put him in a ball screen so either one of them could make that last shot, take that last play.”