LEXINGTON - How can you not love watching Michael Kidd-Gilchrist play — unless you are playing or coaching against him.
In the first 67 seconds of Saturday’s 77-71 win over Alabama, he hit the deck grabbing a defensive rebound and then was knocked down again getting an offensive board. Next, the stole the ball from former UK¿recruit Trevor Lacey, drove the length of the court and maneuvered around Lacey to score. A minute later he was fouled powering his way along the baseline and hit two free throws.
Then came one of those “MKG plays” that have made him not only a Kentucky fan favorite, but a national media darling. After his second free throw, he deflected the inbounds pass, went to the floor to secure it and passed to Doron Lamb, who hit a 3-pointer.
Two minutes later there he was streaking down the court after a Darius Miller steal, taking a pass, faking a defender and getting the easy layup to give UK¿a 16-8 lead six minutes into the game. A smiling Kidd-Gilchrist looked up into the crowd after that layup and pumped his arms, perhaps trying to even get an assist for crowd noise because he does just about everything else a 6-7 player could on the court.
After a two-minute rest, Kidd-Gilchrist came back into the game when Terrence Jones gave up a follow basket that cut the lead to 16-12. No problem. It was MKG time again. He slashed inside Alabama’s zone defense to take a nifty pass from Darius Miller and scored.
What he did a minute later is why he’s so, so special. Alabama was on the fast break and Nick Jacobs had to think he had an uncontested layup. Kidd-Gilchrist ran the court like Secretariat, soared into the air and knocked the shot away to start a fast break that led to a score by Lamb and a 20-12 UK lead.
Once again, the one thing he could not do was stay out of foul trouble and when he got his second foul midway of the first half and watched the last 10:14 from the bench. In the eight minutes he did play, he had eight points, three rebounds, two steals and one block. However, he was never quite the same the second half before eventually fouling out with 1:06 left.
“I got in foul trouble. I¿have to work on that. It made me hesitant, maybe trying too much to avoid fouls. I can’t do that,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
He still had 13 points, six rebounds, two steals, one assist and one block. But for Kentucky to be elite, he has to play more than the 23 minutes he did in this game. However, his absence could be one reason Alabama shot 48 percent, the best any opponent has done this season.
It took four more clutch free throws by Darius Miller — remember he hit two to ice the game at Tennessee a week earlier — and UK scoring it last 15 points at the foul line for the Cats to beat Alabama only 36 hours after the Tide had been handled easily at home by Vanderbilt. Kentucky had six players in double figures, but it was outrebounded 35-31 and let Alabama shoot 65 percent (13-for-20) in the second half.
Calipari said Kidd-Gilchrist “was not on his game” overall.
“He made the big plays diving on the floor. Came up with big balls that made a difference in the game,” the Kentucky coach said.
What happened the second half? Was he leery of fouling or maybe sluggish from sitting so long?
“He fouled out, so it must not have been the fear of foul trouble. But it might have been that,” Calipari said. “But here he is with 13 points, six rebounds in 23 minutes. Not bad.
“What’s happened for us here is we’re all spoiled. If we don’t win by 25, what’s going on. Part of it is they have scholarships, too. They are good. Now they are 13-6. They are not afraid. They have some veteran guys out there who play well. Right now I’m just kind of happy to get a W (win) and move.”
Same for Kidd-Gilchrist. That’s why you will never seen him pouting after a win — or during a game.
He took a questionable shot in the lane with 2:37 left and UK¿leading 67-63. However, he hustled back on defense to get the rebound, led the fast break and drew a foul before hitting one free throw. He took a 3-pointer with no hesitation that he missed with 1:20 left and UK¿leading 69-65 before he fouled out.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant insisted his team does nothing different from a defensive standpoint for certain players, a point UK center Anthony Davis obviously might question based on the crowd he drew Saturday. However, Grant would not downplay the significance of what MKG does on the court.
“He had a great impact on the game the first half, maybe eight points in eight minutes. He affects the game a lot of ways. Defensively, he plays with great intensity and offensively he is an attacker and playmaker,” Grant said.
He’s all that and as much as Calipari and teammates know they need him on the court, he knows it, too.
“Watching is no fun. This was a physical game and I¿have to move my feet better and not reach to get in foul trouble,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “It was physical. It was just one of those games. It was an early game (noon), but they just had a good team and I didn’t do my best. But we won, so I will just learn from this and be happy. If we win, that’s all that matters.”