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November 20, 2011

Miller's senior savvy help lifts Cats to hard-fought win

UNCASVILLE, Conn. - So this is the blueprint. You want a shot at beating Kentucky, your best bet probably is doing what Old Dominion did on Sunday.

You hold the ball. You get physical. You play a zone and pack the middle with defenders.

It didn't work - No. 2 UK earned a hard-fought 62-52 win at the Mohegan Sun Arena - but it gave the Monarchs a fighting chance and caught the Wildcats off guard.

Most of them, anyway.

Not Darius Miller.

"We're a young team, we're still learning and we got out of here alive somehow," Kentucky coach John Calipari said after his team won the Hall of Fame Tip-Off classic. "And the reason we got out alive is because Darius played. If he didn't play, we probably get beat by 10 or 12 easy, in my opinion."

Miller scored 13 points, dished out five assists, grabbed four rebounds and providing a steadying senior presence for UK's rocky rookies in what was a one-point game with 7:11 to play.

These young Wildcats (4-0) found out Sunday that this is how opponents are likely to play them this season. Miller already knew it.

"I've seen this all before," Miller said. "I'm not worried about it. It's only our fourth game of the season, so we'll be fine."

So you want to sag and crowd the lane with a 3-2 zone? Miller will drive and pitch to Doron Lamb for a three-pointer the way he did with 14:33 left in the second half.

You want to get physical? Miller will bull his way into the paint and fade away for a clutch bucket, the way he did with 8:17 to play to put Kentucky in front by five.

Want to grind out a game and hope the Cats panic? Miller will sink two free throws like the ones he made with 4:44 to play to put the Cats up 58-49.

"He saw everything," said freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist who matched Miller's team-high 13 points. "He's our senior, our leader on the court. And that's what he does best, just calming us down on the court and just being active on the court. That's what he does best."

He does a lot of things well. He put most of them on display Sunday against the plucky Monarchs (3-2), who led most of the first half and hung tough in the second by battering UK in the paint and rattling the Cats with a zone.

"You have to get into the middle of their defense, and he was the only one that said, 'Just give me the ball and I'll get into the middle of the defense,'" Calipari said. "Now, he not only passed it, he scored. He was making those five-, seven-footers. The one he faded away late when we were dying was a big shot. Again, he's a veteran. He understands. He's been through this."

So Miller isn't fazed when a freshman has five first-half turnovers like point guard Marquis Teague did. He isn't flustered by the Cats' 21 turnovers as a team or by the notion that opponents might have seen in Sunday's game a potential weakness in the Wildcats.

"Two years ago when we had John (Wall) and them, we used to have 20 turnovers," Miller said. "We used to have 25 turnovers. Eventually we got it down to 10 and we became a better team."

Still, there were some alarm bells for Miller. There are coaching points for Calipari.

"Especially being physical, because none of us handled it pretty well this game," Miller said. "None of us played good against the physicality that they played with. Those were older guys.

"They played with a lot of intensity. They were very disciplined in what they wanted to do and they did a great job of executing."

Old Dominion hurt the Cats inside, getting 17 points and 12 rebounds - seven of them offensive - from forward Chris Cooper. They knocked around UK freshman Anthony Davis, who fouled out in 20 minutes with 11 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots.

"We've really got to get more physical," Davis said. "A lot of teams are going to try to get that, especially watching this game tape, seeing that when (the game) gets physical, we kind of get frustrated. So we've got to work in practice on getting more physical."

When teams review the tape, they'll also find that by hitting Kentucky with haymakers, Old Dominion gave itself a puncher's chance.

When Trian Iliadis sank his third three-pointer of the game at the 7:11 mark of the second half, the Monarchs were within a point at 50-49. But UK held the Monarchs without a field goal from that point on and reeled off a 10-0 run to take a 60-49 lead.

Miller had two points during that stretch, but his steadying hand made him the game's MVP.

"D-Miller's just a great player," Davis said. "When he gets to the middle of the zone, it helps a lot. He can kick it out for the three, he can finish around the rim. He's a very versatile player. He can do it all. So that's what we try to do, just get in the middle of the lane and create plays from there."

It's the value of being a veteran. Miller's been around the block. His teammates might have panicked during the game. Some fans might be panicked after it.

Not Miller. He's seen it all before. He expects to see it all again.

"I figure a lot of teams are going to play us like that anyway," Miller said. "We're just going to have to get used to it, get used to playing more physical, playing through bumps and stuff like that, and we'll be fine."


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