Liggins helps shoot Kentucky into Final Four

March 27, 2011 4:49:26 PM PDT
Maybe now, everyone understands why Kentucky coach John Calipari kept DeAndre Liggins around. The quiet, unassuming junior forward from Chicago has never been the star, even under former coach Billy Gillispie. Most critics wondered where he would fit into Calipari's system, one that seems to rely so heavily on one-and-done freshman phenoms.

It turns out he fits in quite nicely.

After struggling much of the game, Liggins drained a 3-pointer with 37 seconds remaining Sunday to help the Wildcats beat North Carolina 76-69 in the East regional final.

He finished with 12 points, but he sure made them count.

It was something akin to vindication for Liggins, who said Saturday that even he wondered where he would fit into the Kentucky program when Calipari rolled into town. Liggins admitted it hurts to watch newcomers take minutes the veterans believe they earned, then reasoned that all of those freshmen must be pretty good to get a chance to play.

So he accepted his role on the team -- being the mentor, being the scrappy defender, doing everything he can to help first-year guys like Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones excel.

And when he gets an open look, knocking it down.

Kentucky built a double-digit lead against the Tar Heels, making shots from all over the floor, only to watch the kids from Chapel Hill come roaring back. North Carolina had closed within 70-69 on a basket by Tyler Zeller with just under 2 minutes remaining.

Knight went to the foul line moments later with a chance to give Kentucky some breathing room, but the freshman missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. After locking down on defense, the Wildcats came back the other way and the ball ended up in the hands of Liggins, in the corner right in front of the Kentucky bench.

The shot hit nothing but net, perhaps the school's biggest since Scott Padgett knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer to cap a big comeback against Duke in the 1998 regional finals.

The Wildcats would go on to beat Stanford and Utah in the Final Four that year, and they'll get a chance to win another championship in Houston now -- thanks in large part to Liggins.

Padgett was watching the game from the stands and acknowledged that it was great to see Liggins, who has been through so much during his career, making the key shot.

"At different times throughout the year it was a little rough for him," Padgett said. "But my guy DeAndre, something about No. 34 over there."

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