TAMPA – The spirits of virtually an entire Commonwealth rested in the hands of a guy who hadn't made a basket all afternoon.
Brandon Knight scored his only points of the day on a runner off the glass with two seconds left Thursday to give Kentucky a 59-57 victory over Princeton in its opening NCAA tournament game at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"Sometimes you miss them," Knight said. "Sometimes you make them. If I miss 20, I'll still have confidence I'll make the next one."
As soon as Knight's shot fell, all of Kentucky could exhale. Most of it, anyway.
For much of the day, things were going just dandy for the 6,000 or so residents of Morehead, Ky. Everyone else in Kentucky was staring at the realistic possibility of a Commonwealth catastrophe.
The first genuine stunner of the NCAA tournament occurred when 13th-seeded Morehead State edged fourth-seeded Louisville 62-61 on Demonte Harper's late 3-pointer in Denver. Barely an hour later, Kentucky also was going down to the wire with a No. 13 seed.
How would people have reacted back home if Kentucky and Louisville had lost on the same day?
"Aw, I couldn't even imagine," Kentucky forward Terrence Jones said. "I don't want to imagine."
Of course, who could have imagined the circumstances that led to this East Regional game being decided in the final seconds?
Knight had led Kentucky (26-8) in scoring this season, averaging 17.5 points per game. Yet he missed his first seven shots Thursday. Knight couldn't remember a previous game that he had been held scoreless until the final minute. And his highly touted freshman classmates didn't do much better.
Jones had 10 points and pulled down a season-low two rebounds, while Doron Lamb scored seven points. The Wildcats couldn't pull away from a Princeton team that relied on the senior leadership of Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides.
"We weren't expecting that close a game, but things happen during this time of the season," Lamb said. "You've got to find a way to pull it out, and we did."
Kentucky wouldn't have had a chance without the contributions of senior forward Josh Harrellson, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds. This game was shaping up as a testimony to the benefits of experience – until a freshman drove past a senior to make the play of the game.
"There's no one that works harder, spends more time or believes in himself [more] based on his work ethic," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "He's the first one in the gym and the last one to leave. … I have no problem putting that ball in his hand because he's made that shot in the gym by himself many times."
Knight also made that type of shot in many different games, even if they weren't of this magnitude.
He graduated from Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Pine Crest School with 3,515 career points, making him the second-leading scorer in Florida high school history. He's a former Gatorade national player of the year. He also was unlikely to let his Princeton foes outthink him, as Knight is an Ivy League-quality student in his own right who posted a 4.3 grade-point average at academically rigorous Pine Crest.
All those credentials kept Knight from getting down on himself even as he struggled through one of the worst games of his life.
"I just feel confident no matter what the situation is," Knight said.
Princeton (25-7) tied it at 57 on a fadeaway jumper by Mavraides with 38 seconds left. Princeton coach Sydney Johnson had served as a team captain when the Tigers upset defending national champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. Could he create more March magic?
Knight wouldn't allow it.
Calipari called for a side pick-and-roll during a timeout with 34 seconds left. The ball remained in Knight's hands as time ticked off the clock. After the 6-8 Maddox took over defensive duties from 6-6 guard T.J. Bray, Knight took off with less than five seconds left on the clock.
"I don't want to settle [for a jump shot] in that situation," Knight said. "I had a bigger guy on me, so I thought I had a good chance of going by him."
The matchup featured Kentucky's best offensive player against Princeton's top stopper. Maddox was the Ivy League defensive player of the year and a first-team all-league selection. He had a good game. On this play, he just wasn't quite good enough.
Knight drove to the right of the lane and made a finger roll off the glass. Just like that, the team that had reached the NCAA tournament with a buzzer-beating win over Harvard found itself on the other side of a game-deciding basket.
"He's a starting point guard on an SEC [tournament] championship team," Maddox said. "I shouldn't have let him go by me. That's my fault. But, yeah, it was a nice play."
Knight and Co. won't have much time to celebrate. Kentucky's upperclassmen surely won't allow freshman complacency to ruin their shot at revenge. UK's Final Four quest last season ended in the East Regional final, when the Wildcats were 4-of-32 from 3-point range in a 73-66 loss to West Virginia. The victory over Princeton set up a Saturday rematch with West Virginia, an 84-76 winner over Clemson.
"We're a better-shooting team this year, so I'm interested to see what kind of defense they're going to play," junior guard DeAndre Liggins said. "I know they're going to make it a fistfight."
That sounds fine to Knight, who already has proved he can deliver a knockout punch.