Big day for Knight
TAMPA – Brandon Knight exudes the type of attitude that prevents him from ever getting caught up in the emotion of any situation.
Never too high. Never too low.
But even Knight had to admit feeling just a little different Saturday before Kentucky’s 71-63 victory over West Virginia. Knight knew a loss would end his season, and he had scored just two points Thursday in his NCAA tournament debut.
“Definitely for me, I felt a lot more anxiety coming into today’s game, especially after not playing so well [Thursday],” Knight said.
It turns out he had no reason to worry.
The 6-foot-3 freshman guard followed up the worst statistical performance of his career by scoring a career-high 30 points as the fourth-seeded Wildcats ousted the fifth-seeded Mountaineers at the St. Pete Times Forum. The triumph sent Kentucky (27-8) into an East Regional semifinal game against either No. 1 seed Ohio State (33-2) or No. 8 seed George Mason (27-6) at Newark, N.J.
The bounce-back performance didn’t surprise Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“Of all the players I’ve coached – and I’ve had guys that would live in the practice facility literally – I’ve never seen a guy with this kid’s work ethic,” Calipari said. “He focuses on, ‘Where are my weak areas?’ and he goes after them.”
Of course, nobody was really complaining about Knight’s performance Thursday. Not after he made the game-winning basket on a driving layup with two seconds left in a 59-57 victory over Princeton.
But he missed his first seven shots before that play. Kentucky wasn’t going to beat West Virginia if Knight struggled that much again.
Knight made a pair of 3-pointers in the first 2 1/2 minutes of the game and scored 10 of his team’s first 12 points.
“When you get a player like that going,” West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla said, “it’s kind of hard to stop him.”
The Mountaineers (21-12) never did.
Knight scored five points during an 11-0 run to start the second half that turned an eight-point halftime deficit into a three-point advantage. He went 9-of-10 from the free-throw line over the game’s final 61 seconds to help Kentucky seal the victory.
“Playing these types of games where you know that if you lose your season is done, I think guys really come out and they fight a lot harder,” Knight said. “They go after rebounds a lot tougher. It kind of changes the game. Guys play tough throughout the season, but I think they step it up a notch in the tournament.”
Knight certainly did.