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Unbe-Lee-vable: Freshman forward makes Cal's prediction come true

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Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Wildcats knew at that point they would likely be without Willie Cauley-Stein.

Talking to the Cats after their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan was set, John Calipari offered a prediction of something that would help them survive the big man's absence.

"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Marcus Lee said.

That's right. Lee, the player who had as many DNPs as games played in Southeastern Conference play, was going to star.

"And everyone in the world would be talking about you is what I said," Calipari said.

Lee and his teammates, understandably, were skeptical.

"Knowing us, none of us believed him," Lee said.

For the first minute he was on the floor against the Wolverines, the doubt seemed well-founded

His team in the midst of a characteristic slow start, Lee checked in at the 15:25 mark of the first half. On his third possession, he made a mistake that led in part to an Alex Poythress turnover. On the other end of the floor, he missed a block-out assignment and Jon Horford capitalized with a tip-in to give Michigan an 11-4 lead.

Coach Cal, poised to end all thoughts of a breakout performance for the slender freshman, turned to the bench and summoned Dakari Johnson as a substitute.

But then something happened.

Andrew Harrison drove and missed a floater. Lee, on the weak side, flashed to the rim. In one motion, he rose, palmed the rebound and spiked it downward. It rattled around for a moment before falling and giving Lee his first points in more than a month.

As Lee ran back on defense, Calipari summoned Johnson again, this time back to the bench.

It was good he did, because Lee was about to author one of the most improbable stories of an NCAA Tournament full of them. Well, improbable to everyone except Calipari maybe.

His put-back dunk was the first of three such plays. By the time Calipari did finally bring Lee back to the bench, he had six points and three rebounds in just three minutes, helping UK withstand a first-half barrage by Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas.

"I was just trying to do my part to help my team win," Lee said. "And throughout our practices and our shootarounds, I just got more confident because my team got more confident in me."

His confidence only grew as he produced.

Lee was on the floor as UK stormed back from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes of the half, slamming down another tip dunk to cap an 8-0 run. Forty-one seconds later, he drove from the free-throw line and hit a right-handed layup.

It was a play that reminded everyone watching that Lee was a UK's seventh McDonald's All-American in Coach Cal's top-ranked 2013 class, including the Wolverines.

"We had very little on him (on the scouting report)," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But he does one thing really, really well, and that's he plays way above the rim."

His teammates needed no such reminder of that, even as Lee went from scouting report afterthought to trending nationwide on Twitter during that remarkable first half.

"What he did kept us in the game, won us the game," Julius Randle said. "That's what we need from him. We knew he was capable of it all season. We had Willie and Dakari playing out of their mind all season but we knew he was capable of it."

More aware of the bouncy Lee, the Wolverines paid him more attention after halftime. Lee didn't score as UK came out on top after a back-and-forth final 20 minutes on Aaron Harrison's game-winning 3, but he was still effective in six minutes of playing time.

For the game, Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks. His performance earned him a spot on the Midwest Region All-Tournament Team alongside Randle, the Most Outstanding Player, and the ever-clutch Aaron Harrison.

"It is pretty crazy, but he really stepped up," said Johnson, who told reporters on Saturday the Cats would need Lee to play well. "He got his opportunity. You know, Willie was out and he more than stepped up big time. He was a difference-maker in the game. Without him I don't think we would have won today."

That's probably the first time in Lee's short college career that could be said.

Lee exploded for 17 points in his UK debut, but in a game against UNC Asheville that was never in doubt. When he did get his opportunities, Lee would flash athleticism but make maddening mistakes that made it impossible for Coach Cal to play the Antioch, Calif., native over Cauley-Stein or Johnson.

He understood why he wasn't seeing more time, but he couldn't help but let frustration creep in.

"Just as a competitor you have it going through your head sometimes," Lee said. "But when you're with your team and you're with your family, it kind of just goes right past you."

Nevertheless, there would be times when Lee would have lapses in practice and daydream.

"I mean, when you have really long practices you have to take some time to yourself for a second," Lee said, smiling. "But, yeah, you gotta get the foot in your butt to tell you to come back to earth."

He didn't need any kicks in the butt on Saturday knowing an opportunity might be coming. Once it did, all Lee did was carry a solid day of practice forward.

"I just tried to play the same way I played in practice," Lee said. "I treated every game like me going through practice. Coach always told me to be ready so that's what I tried to do."

With Cauley-Stein -- wearing a protective boot and using crutches on Sunday -- uncertain for next weekend's national semifinal against Wisconsin, Lee will need to be ready again.

"Marcus Lee, again," said Johnson, asked how the Cats will cope without Cauley-Stein. "He'll get another opportunity and he more than handled this opportunity. So I have no doubt he's going to play well again."

For now, Lee's just going to enjoy having the entire world talk about him. That, and the pride of the coach who believed in him more than he believed in himself.

"Proud of you, kid," Calipari told Lee at UK's postgame press conference.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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