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Miller one step closer to fitting senior sendoff

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Darius Miller scored 13 points in UK's Final Four victory over Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Darius Miller scored 13 points in UK's Final Four victory over Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NEW ORLEANS -- Darius Miller grew up during the recent golden age of Kentucky basketball. He, like a lot of youngsters in towns like Maysville, Ky., likely came to think that advancing to the Final Four was a Big Blue birthright as the Wildcats played in three straight national championship games from 1996-98.

Based on the now-famous photo of Miller posing with UK great Tony Delk while wearing a Walter McCarty jersey, it's safe to assume the Wildcat senior dreamed of playing on college basketball's biggest stage wearing Kentucky blue.

Three years ago, it didn't look like Miller would ever get that kind of opportunity. His first season ended ignominiously with a loss in the NIT, a three-letter acronym Kentucky fans treat like a four-letter word. Miller was one of the lone bright spots on a roster devoid of the talent necessary to make a deep March Madness run.

The rest, as they say, is history, as John Calipari came aboard and authored an unprecedented turnaround. First came an Elite Eight, then a Final Four, then another in his senior season. While some would rather forget how his career began, Miller appreciates it. The past gives him perspective.

"For me to be able to experience it with these guys I've grown to be brothers with, it means a lot to me," Miller said. "Especially, in my freshman season, I was in the NIT. It was terrible."

His first crack at the Final Four met its end in the national semifinals, but he wasn't about to let the same thing happen the second time around. He knows how precious these kinds of chances are.

"It's very emotional," Miller said. "We've worked extremely hard to get to this point. I feel like we've all (done) a great job throughout the whole year. This is what we've been reaching for. At the end of this game we have a chance to win a national championship."

The game Miller is referring to is UK's 69-61 victory over archrival Louisville to move to within one game of the NCAA crown, the goal that has been on the Wildcats' minds since day one.

For a brief moment, it appeared they might fall short after all. Leading by as many as 13 points early in the second half, the Cats allowed the Cardinals to make a charge. With 9:12 to play, Peyton Siva, a 23.9-percent 3-point shooter on the season, drained a shot from deep to tie the game at 49, and it seemed the stars were aligning for an upset.

Enter Miller.

In the kind of moment familiar to anyone who has followed the 2011-12 Wildcats, the versatile guard declared it "Miller time" once more. After Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones shook off subpar performances last night to give the Cats a little breathing room, Miller, who scored 13 points on the evening, dug the dagger into the side of the rival Cardinals. He scored five points in a row on a 3-pointer and two free throws, plays that helped the droves of UK fans in the Big Easy rest easy, or at least head to Bourbon Street in a celebratory mood.

"That was great to see that go in," Kyle Wiltjer said of the back-breaking trey. "They were making some runs of their own and we were able to bounce back and make some big shots and that really helped us put them away."

Characteristically, Miller deflected praise when talking about the shot.

"Marquis (Teague) did a great job of finding me," said Miller, who will break Wayne Turner's UK record with 152 games played on Monday. "He pushed it, put pressure on the defense. I was trailing. He gave me a good pass. I just tried to knock it down."

Some of Miller's best plays of his final campaign as a Wildcat have come in the season's biggest moments, but it's the intangibles he brings when the going gets rough that really stick with his young teammates.

"When we get in tough situations, he calms us down and tells us what to do," Anthony Davis said. "He's a great leader, leads the team. That what he does at crunch time, tells you what to do."

"Whenever we get a little hectic on the floor, he huddles us together, tells us to stay poised," Teague said.

Miller, in spite of the warm and fuzzy legacy he will leave behind, has been far from immune to criticism in his time as a Wildcat. His deferential nature led some to wonder whether he ever would reach his potential as a player or a leader, but what was previously seen as a flaw has become invaluable.

"He's the most unselfish player I've ever coached," John Calipari said. "Sometimes it drives me crazy because I don't think he understands how good he really is, but he's done great things for us."

For a senior who started the majority of the previous two seasons, it would have been hard to blame Miller for having a sense of entitlement. Instead, his selflessness helped pave the way for an unimaginably successful season and a national title game appearance against Kansas.

"He's had his best year by far," Calipari said. "His numbers, he's a top-50 player to ever put on a uniform at Kentucky."

There will be a time when thoughts about his place in Kentucky lore will likely cross Miller's mind, but that time is not now. He has a chance to be a part of just the eighth team to win a title at Kentucky, and he's not worried about anything else.

"It's not an opportunity that most people get," Miller said. "Can't really explain it in words. You have to experience it."

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