NEW ORLEANS -- Billy Clyde Gillispie may have helped saved Kentucky's season.
Louisville had begun to mount pressure on the Wildcats, and Rick Pitino's team cut the 10-point second half deficit to 53-51 with less than eight minutes remaining. Terrence Jones extended it to four with a basket, but the outcome was clearly in question with a national championship berth on the line.
Louisville wasn't just hanging around anymore.
That was when senior Darius Miller, the last link to the Gillispie Era and a guy once regarded for his inability to make timely plays, stepped up and knocked down the game's most critical shot. It was a 3-pointer from the right side with 5:04 left that was followed up with a pair of Miller free throws to push the margin to a comfortable nine. After Kyle Kuric came back down the other end, had his 3-pointer partially blocked and after a scrum underneath the basket, it was Miller who wound up with the ball in his hands for the loose ball rebound.
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Everyone talks about Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer -- the latest stellar recruiting class that John Calipari has brought to Lexington. The holdovers from his previous class, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, also get plenty of accolades and attention. It's all legit, but this team isn't vying for a national title on Monday night without Miller.
He's that glue guy, the one who has never once complained despite being jettisoned to the bench after waiting his turn for three seasons to shine. Miller got the call in the opener and was in the starting lineup eight times within a 10-game stretch in December and January, but has come off the bench in every contest except for the SEC title game since Jan. 21. He came into the game tied for sixth on the team in scoring at 10 points per contest.
The 6-foot-7 Kentucky native was never quite as highly regarded coming out of high school as most of his teammates, but he wasn't a slouch, either. Miller was ranked 38th in the country by one of the major scouting sites and is someone who had visions of playing at the next level since midway through his high school career at Mason County High in Maysville, Ky.
But his unselfishness has rubbed off on his younger teammates. He's not a vocal guy, but his maturity -- as the only senior who gets any significant playing time, has been key for this team reaching the national title contest. Miller has come a long way from the guy that couldn't make clutch shots to one who now clearly thrives in that role.
"He's gotten better each year in understanding his role that they need someone to step up in big moments with such a young team," said his childhood friend and Washington Wizards guard Shelvin Mack.
"He's clearly the fiber that holds that team together," former Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said during the SEC tournament. "He's the key to them."
Anthony Davis was the star of the win over Louisville in Saturday's national semifinals. He finished with 18 points, 14 boards and five blocks. However, on a night in which Kidd-Gilchrist battled foul trouble, Terrence Jones failed to show for most of the game and both Lamb and Teague were held in check, Miller delivered.
"When we get in tough situations, he calms us down and tell us what to do. He's a great leader, leads this team." Davis said.
Miller's versatility is underrated. He can step out and make shots from the perimeter and also drive the ball into the lane and make shots over smaller guards. He's a mismatch guy who also guards on the other end of the floor. He finished with an efficient 13 points on only seven field goal attempts in 29 minutes -- and made the game's most significant shot.
Kentucky fans yearn to forget the days of Gillispie and for good reason. It was two of the most forgettable seasons in the program's history.
However, at least Billy Clyde did something positive. He brought Miller down the road to Lexington.