UK appeared it would have to grind out a tight victory against an opponent shooting the lights out in Rupp Arena, but the Wildcats awoke. Spurred by a suffocating full-court press and highlight reel finishes at the rim, UK stirred to action and awed the 24,179 Big Blue faithful in attendance the rest of the way.
"We press a lot of teams," freshman Anthony Davis said. "Our length is so crazy we can lock down teams defensively and we try to press and get teams distracted and thrown off. They had a couple turnovers and we had a lot of big plays and it made our energy go up."
In fewer than six minutes after Portland cut the deficit to six, UK went on a 20-5 run while employing that press. The Cats had steals, dunks, and-ones and jumpers, but the highlight came from freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He made a steal at mid-court and streaked down the middle of the floor, seeing an opportunity. He took off from inside the free throw line, skying over and through Derrick Rodgers for a rim-rocking and-one dunk sure to make multiple appearances on ESPN.
"I stole the ball, dribbled and just dunked it," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "That's my game, that's what I do best."
Kidd-Gilchrist's matter-of-fact description almost seems to suggest the play was easy for him, but it still caught the attention of his teammates. Dunks like the one Kidd-Gilchrist had may only count for two points, but they can have a psychological effect on the opponent.
"Definitely, especially the one Mike had today," Miller said. "That was crazy. I know that had to do something to them."
Kidd-Gilchrist's dunk came with 12 seconds of another dunk from Davis on alley-oop thrown by Marquis Teague. That ability to create easy multiple baskets off the press reminds Miller of a pretty good team he played on earlier in his career. However, UK's length with players like Davis and Terrence Jones adds another dimension.
"Two years ago (in 2009-10) we were pretty good at that too, in my opinion," Miller said. "It's kind of different because of the length that we have and how versatile we are, but it's similar in some ways."
Miller, who finished with a season-high 19 points, is well versed in the cumulative effect a press like UK's can have.
"I think it makes it real tough on them," Miller said. "It fatigues them I think, especially their point guard, when he has to go against all of us. A lot of times, coaches depend on their point guard bringing it up and I think if we make it difficult on them, it kind of slows down their team."
UK forced 17 turnovers on the game, including four from Portland point guard Tim Douglas. The sophomore had just one at halftime, but he began to succumb to the pressure as his legs gave way.
"We are just really long and it makes it difficult for teams to get (the ball) over when you have guys like Mike guarding you and me coming to trap," Jones said.
Don't get too excited though Big Blue Nation: John Calipari isn't going to be turning to the press on a full-time anytime soon because sound defense, he believes, begins in the half-court. UK employed the press extensively on Saturday in an effort to speed up a Portland team intent on playing slow.
With games against high-profile opponents like St. John's and North Carolina upcoming, UK may or may not be employing the press more this week.
"You're not going to press great teams that are well coached into submission," Calipari said. "You're not. I don't care what anybody says. You're not winning a championship if that's the thing that you're relying on."
However, that's not to say there won't be a time and a place for it as the season goes on as it most certainly was against Portland.
"I also think a press can change the complexion of a game and can give you a gap," Calipari said. "You have to be able to guard in the half court, you have to be able to shut people down."