Liggins helps shoot Kentucky into Final Four

Maybe now, everyone understands why Kentucky coach John Calipari

kept DeAndre Liggins around.

The quiet, unassuming junior forward from Chicago has never been

the star, even under former coach Billy Gillispie. Most critics

wondered where he would fit into Calipari’s system, one that seems

to rely so heavily on one-and-done freshman phenoms.

It turns out he fits in quite nicely.

After struggling early in the game, Liggins drained a 3-pointer

with 37 seconds remaining Sunday to help the Wildcats beat North

Carolina 76-69 in the East regional final.

He finished with 12 points, and he sure made them count.

”He knows how proud I am. He’s come so far as a player,

trusting people, trusting his coaches. This kid works,” Calipari

said. ”He’s overcome a lot of stuff.”

It was something akin to vindication for Liggins, who said

Saturday that even he wondered where he would fit into the Kentucky

program when Calipari rolled into town. Liggins admitted it hurt to

watch newcomers take minutes that the veterans believe they earned,

then reasoned that all of those freshmen must be pretty good to get

a chance to play.

So he accepted his role on the team – being the mentor, being

the scrappy defender, doing everything he can to make first-year

guys like Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones excel.

And when he gets an open look, knocking it down.

”He’s a big-time player,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams

said. ”You got to give kids credit for making plays. I love

DeAndre’s game, I really do.”

Kentucky built a double-digit lead in the second half against

the Tar Heels, only to watch the kids from Chapel Hill come roaring

back. North Carolina closed within 70-69 on a basket by Tyler

Zeller with just under 2 minutes remaining, then got the ball back

when Knight missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity at

the foul line.

Kendall Marshall drove to the basket for the would-be go-ahead

shot when Liggins slid in front and made the block. Liggins ran

back to the other end of the floor, set up in the corner by the

Kentucky bench, took a pass and let go a 3-pointer in one fluid

motion.

It went crisply through the net.

”Kendall drove past me and my lift gave me the ability to block

that shot,” Liggins said. ”And that 3 I took, Coach just said if

there’s a kick out, you’d better shoot it.”

It may have been the biggest shot for the school since Scott

Padgett – who also wore No. 34 for the Wildcats – knocked down the

go-ahead basket to finish off a dramatic comeback victory over Duke

in the 1998 regional finals.

The Wildcats would go on to beat Stanford and Utah in the Final

Four that year, and they’ll get a chance to win another title in

Houston now – thanks in large part to Liggins.

”At different times throughout the year it was a little rough

for him,” said Padgett, who still follows the program closely and

made his way down to the court after the game, where he watched the

Wildcats celebrate on a platform brought onto the floor.

”My guy DeAndre,” Padgett said with a smile. ”Something about

No. 34 over there.”

Few people would have expected Liggins to take the big shot a

year ago, or even six months ago, back when Tennessee coach Bruce

Pearl was chastising him for ”trash talking” and he was picking

up technical fouls for his emotional outbursts on the court.

His intensity stems from his background playing pickup games in

Chicago, where gangs and brawls and guns were common. But he’s

learned to keep a cooler head, part of the maturity process that

comes with being a leader, something Calipari has been trying to

drive home with Liggins for the better part of two years.

”DeAndre has overcome a lot, and you look at him right now,”

Calipari said, pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts. ”I’m

really proud, and I’m on him now – I’m on him, to do the right

things, and if he screws up, he knows I’ll be there.”

He wouldn’t have it any other way.