NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Senior guard Darius Miller made the most of his moment. Freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer did the same in his cameo.
Two guys who would likely start for any other team in the nation are bench players at Kentucky. They highlighted the fact that the Wildcats have overflowing athleticism in a 69-61 victory over Louisville in the NCAA semifinals Saturday night.
Miller scored 13 points, Wiltjer added five and both snuffed out the Cardinals’ momentum at key points with their play on both ends of the floor.
Wiltjer was among the nation’s top 20 recruits last year, but is largely overshadowed by Kentucky’s fantastic freshman starters: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. Miller had started 69 games over his previous two seasons, but willingly went to the bench to make room for Kidd-Gilchrist.
While Kentucky’s freshmen and two sophomore starters get the spotlight, Miller and Wiltjer both provided key minutes as the Wildcats advanced to the national championship game for the first time since winning it all in 1998.
The top-seeded Wildcats will face the winner of Ohio State-Kansas on Monday night.
“It’s great stuff. I’m proud of this team. They’re coming together,” coach John Calipari said. “They’ve taken on shots and runs like Louisville did today, and they’ve held their own, so I’m proud of them.”
At moments when the Cardinals appeared poised to pounce, Miller or Wiltjer shot them down.
Miller, the closest thing to a hometown kid after growing up 65 miles from Lexington in Maysville, Ky., is often called the sixth starter by Calipari. Much like his role in the second half of games all season, he produced just when the Wildcats needed him.
With Kentucky leading 37-32, the 6-foot-9 Miller hit a jumper, then stripped Chane Behanan on consecutive plays that led to points and put Kentucky ahead 43-32. After the Cardinals rallied back and tied it, Miller was a major contributor in an 11-2 run that put Kentucky ahead to stay with a 3-pointer off a pass from Teague and a pair of free throws after his strong move to the basket against Kyle Kuric.
Wiltjer’s brief appearance proved productive, too. The 6-foot-9 forward from Portland, Ore., played all 8 of his minutes before the break and made a pair of key plays after Louisville scored five consecutive points to cut the Wildcats’ lead to 31-28.
Teague found Wiltjer for a 3-pointer, then Wiltjer stole the ball from Chris Smith on the ensuing possession. Despite being teased as the slowest of the quick ‘Cats, Wiltjer pushed the play and ended up finding Doron Lamb, who was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give Kentucky a 35-28 halftime lead.
That would be it for Wiltjer, but that would be plenty to prove just how effective Kentucky’s bench can be.
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