Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Whatever you call it, Brandon Knight has it.
Despite struggling from the field all night against Ohio State, Knight didn’t hesitate when the game — and the season — was on the line.
After a Jon Diebler 3-pointer tied the game at 60 with 21.2 seconds left, Knight drove on Aaron Craft, pulled up and buried the game-winning jumper with 5.4 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 62-60 victory over the Buckeyes, the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, at The Prudential Center.
Kentucky (28-8) will face North Carolina (29-7) in the Elite Eight on Sunday in a matchup of basketball blue-bloods for the right to play in the Final Four in Houston.
“Coach put me in a pick-and-roll a couple of seconds left,” said Knight, a freshman from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. who finished with just nine points on 3 of 10 shooting. “Instead of going off, I felt he gave me a lane to go right, so I just went right. And he jumped in front of me, so I pulled up, and thank God it went in.”
Ohio State junior William Buford missed a desperation 3-point attempt with two seconds on the clock.
And with that the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament was done.
“He made a heck of a shot,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said of Knight. “Aaron’s a tremendous defender. He had his hand in his face. He just rose up and made a great shot.”
Matta, whose only losses entering the game were at Wisconsin and at Purdue, praised the latest incarnation of Kentucky talent, perhaps slighting the Big Ten in the process.
“That’s the best team we played all year,” he said.
Knight doesn’t have the hype of former one-and-done John Calipari point guards Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall.
But through his first three NCAA Tournament games, he’s shown a willingness to take the big shot.
Against Princeton in the first round, he missed his first seven shots and was held scoreless for more than 39 minutes before he made a driving layup with 2 seconds remaining to give Kentucky a 59-57 victory.
In the next round, he helped Kentucky avenge last season’s Elite Eight loss to West Virginia by scoring a career-high 30 points in a 71-63 victory.
“Like I said, I just thank God for being able to make shots like that,” Knight said. “And just when it comes to crunch time, a couple of seconds left and the game on the line, I focus in and make sure I am making the right decisions.”
Before the game-winner, Knight was just 2-of-9 from the field.
Fellow freshman sensation Terrence Jones went 3-of-10 on the night and the third stud freshman, Doron Lamb of Queens, was 2 of 5.
But with the season in the balance, Calipari turned to Knight.
“I get a lot of confidence from that just knowing that Coach Cal has a lot of faith in me to put me in a position like that to make the right play,” Knight said. “Not only can it be shooting but he tells me somebody else is open, to get it to them to knock the game-winning shot down.”
A year ago, a Kentucky team that featured five future first-round NBA Draft picks crashed and burned at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse to a West Virginia team that featured more experience in seniors Wellington Smith, Da’Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks.
That team featured Wall, the eventual No. 1 pick in last year’s Draft.
Knight, a 4.0 student in high school, said he followed in Wall’s rather large footsteps because Calipari makes his players better.
Calipari has never won an NCAA championship, but now this team advances to face a North Carolina team that is firing on all cylinders after hammering Marquette, 81-63.
North Carolina beat Kentucky, 75-73, on Dec. 4 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
But that was long before freshman Kendall Marshall emerged as the energizing and stabilizing Carolina point guard, replacing Larry Drew.
“I really like Roy [Williams], unbelievable coach,” Calipari said. “What he has done this year with that team. I mean, we played early and they beat us. They are so much better than they were then.”
This matchup will feature two of the three winningest programs in NCAA Division 1 history. Kentucky is first and Carolina is third, behind Kansas.
Carolina has its own stud freshmen in Marshall and Harrison Barnes.
Kentucky counters with Knight, Jones and Lamb.
While Calipari’s last three point guards were all one and done, he says he’s not in favor of the rule.
“I don’t agree with one-and-done, never have, but it is the rule,” he said. “And I am not holding kids back. If they have a chance to go, I will tell them to go. It has never hurt our program. I don’t try to convince kids to come back. If they choose to do that — even like Jodie Meeks, I would like to coach Jodie. I want to coach this team for three more years, are you kidding me? But we are in a situation we are in.”
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.