- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- "I live for this right here," Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said as he eased into a chair 20 minutes after his team's gritty, ugly, and ultimately victorious 69-62 win over hated rival Louisville on Saturday.
Kidd-Gilchrist was responding to a question about whether he liked the game's style, its hard-fought nature. He was flanked on all sides by a media horde who mostly wanted to know the answer to a seemingly simple question: Why?
Why does such a talented player, one to whom the game of basketball came easily, thrive in a game and environment that would cause so many others to wilt? Why does this surefire lottery pick, one who was named the top eighth grader in his class nearly six years ago, still trudge to the campus practice facility to work out every day at 8:30 a.m.? How does he get his teammates -- all of whom have always been the best players wherever they're from, too -- to join him for a morning workout in addition to the team's daily practice that has already earned its own moniker ("The Breakfast Club")?
Why do you live for this? What is it about you?
For a moment, the 6-foot-7 small forward paused. For a moment, he even seemed stumped. Then, the answer came.
"I've just always been that way," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I've got a lot of heart. I'm built for it."
He paused again, apparently thinking it over.
"That's why," he said.
If any game in the country required that makeup, this was it. Few, if any, rivalry games are this pressurized. It is -- with all due respect to Duke-North Carolina and the rest of the country -- the most heated, rabidly provincial rivalry in college basketball right now. It's college hoops' Iron Bowl, the game its respective fan bases digest, dissect, argue and lament for each of the 365 days between the last meeting and the next.
It comes brimming with storylines and hype, with the competition between coaches who, despite winking assertions to the contrary, seem to dislike each other on both personal and professional levels. There's the history: Louisville coach Rick Pitino was once in coach John Calipari's spot, the most loved man in Kentucky, before he left for the NBA and returned to college hoops as a turncoat. When Rupp Arena's blue-clad crowd hails boos at the Cardinals during warmups, when fans near the UL bench shower unsavory (and often hilarious) taunts at Pitino, none of it is cursory. It runs deep. The hatred is real.
So this game was always going to be a test. A test of will, heart and internal fortitude as much as reach, vertical and external talent.
It helps when you have all of the above.
Few players in the game are built that way. Kidd-Gilchrist is.
He's blessed not only with athleticism and skill and an NBA-ready 6-foot-7 body, but also with the kind of competitive fire that puts most of us -- let alone 19-year-old basketball prodigies who've been relentlessly reminded of their ability throughout their formative years -- to shame.
"You get what you deserve in life and in basketball," Calipari said. "You do. You want to spend the extra time, do more, get and do extra things, it's going to start showing. Where it affects you most is your own head. You know you deserve to play well. [Kidd-Gilchrist] was vicious today. He was vicious."
That, more than any other reason, is why Kentucky passed Saturday's surprisingly challenging test. Freshman phenom Anthony Davis was sidelined for much of the first half with foul trouble. Forward Terrence Jones was still noticeably struggling with a dislocated pinkie finger. Marquis Teague and Darius Miller played inefficient, uneven offensive games, combining for a 3-of-16 mark from the field and 12 turnovers.
In the meantime, Louisville's amorphous zone and disruptive interior -- led by an impressive defensive performance from forward Gorgui Dieng -- held the Wildcats to just 17-of-57 from the field.
Only Kidd-Gilchrist broke the offensively bereft mold. He scored 16 of his team's 36 first-half points, buoying the Cats through the offensive struggles that caused them to yield an early 15-point lead. In the end, Kidd-Gilchrist finished with 24 points and 19 rebounds.
Through his 39 minutes, this team's bonafide leader made big play after big play, knocking down outside shots, gliding to the rim on the break, grabbing offensive rebounds and earning trips to the foul line.
He also helped anchor a defense that held Louisville to its own ugly offensive performance, a 20-for-62 shooting day that featured a brutal 4-of-18 mark from beyond the arc. If not for Louisville guard Russ Smith's surprising offensive contributions, the Cardinals would have finished 10-of-42 from the field with just 32 points on their ledger. Smith, who averages 10.8 points per game, went 10-of-20 from the field en route to 30 points.
Despite the offensive struggles and the narrow second-half margin after Louisville tied the game at 40-40 with 15:23 left in the second, Calipari was thrilled with the win. After all, according to ESPN researcher Jason McCallum, UK became just the fourth team in the past 10 years to win a game in which it shot less than 30 percent and had 20-plus turnovers.
"You love winning games like that," he said. "There are going to be games like that when that happens. You're just not going to shoot the ball well. Teams are going to muck it up. You defend and you rebound and you win anyway, and that's what we want to do."
It helped that Louisville's star freshman, Chane Behanan, was forced to leave the game after just four minutes thanks to two rapid-fire fouls; one a charge, the other a technical for his reaction to the first. Likewise, Dieng's late foul trouble robbed the Cardinals of their defensive core and Pitino's team had no answer when Davis returned to the middle in the second half.
Kentucky's athletic advantage carried it throughout. As both teams struggled from the field, it was Kentucky that pulled down the lion's share of the rebounds, including 48.8 percent of available offensive boards. As the referees sought to maintain control over physical play -- whistling 52 personal fouls in 40 minutes -- Kentucky earned free throw after free throw, shooting 43 in total, making 32. Davis, a 58 percent free throw shooter this season, was particularly accurate, hitting 12-of-13, six of which helped seal the game in the final minutes. The stud freshman finished with 18 points, 10 boards and 6 blocks.
"It wasn't good offense tonight," Pitino said. "It was hard-nosed defense. ... The good thing is we are getting more bodies back so we won't have to worry about foul trouble as much. We're always going to make comebacks. But you can't always come back and win."
Still, for all the ugly offense and wasteful turnovers and scrappy, hard-fought play, it was Kidd-Gilchrist who made the separating plays. It was Kidd-Gilchrist's one-man, first-half fast break that helped Kentucky build its original lead -- the only two-point bucket UK scored in the first 14 minutes of the game. It was Kidd-Gilchrist drive to the rim that gave the Wildcats a 43-40 lead a few minutes after Louisville tied the game in the second half.
And it was Kidd-Gilchrist in the second half, sealing the game with an offensive rebound and then an and-one putback that gave his team its definitive 61-50 lead with just 3:41 to play.
It's Kentucky's physical talent and defensive prowess that gives it a chance to win every time it takes the floor.
But it's MKG's unique blend of ability and leadership, of the tangible and the undefinable, that saw this team through its ugliest offensive performance of the season in the most intense, scrutinized game it will play until March. If this team becomes what it wants to be -- national champions or bust -- that combination will be why.
"This team is special," Kidd-Gilchrist said, sitting in that chair, surrounded by curious reporters asking some version of the same question -- why? -- again and again. "We know what we have here. We're hungry. If you're a leader, you care about your teammates more than yourself.
"So I'm going to play my heart out. That's what I'm going to give. My heart."