VAUGHT: Kidd-Gilchrist best player on UK team

Maybe Michael Kidd-Gilchrist won't be the best NBA player on this Kentucky team, but he's certainly going to be the best player on John Calipari's team this year.

The energetic freshman had 24 points, 19 rebounds and one assist to help lift No. 3 Kentucky to a 69-62 win over Louisville that turned out to be a lot harder than it looked like it might be when the Cats built a 15-point lead in the first half.

In a game that featured 52 fouls and 70 free throws, Kidd-Gilchrist was the one constant. He almost willed Kentucky to victory with his physical effort and relentless play. If he ever takes a play off, it will be his first on either end of the court.

"This is me right here. This is what I live for right here. I've always been that way. I got a lot of heart," Kidd-Gilchrist, who has quickly become a Kentucky fan favorite, said.

It's not any one thing that Kidd-Gilchrist does that overwhelms you. It's just that he does a little bit of everything well. Center Anthony Davis, the potential No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, can be dominating and had 18 points, 10 rebounds, six blocked shots and three steals in only 27 minutes (he sat out 12 minutes in the first half with two fouls). But Davis says Kidd-Gilchrist's numbers were no surprise to him.

"He could do that any game. He goes so hard and plays so hard. I don't think anything he does would surprise me," Davis said.

Put sophomore teammate Terrence Jones in the same category after seeing Kidd-Gilchrist set a career-high for points and grab more rebounds against the Cardinals than any other Kentucky player ever has.

"He is an energy player and a game like this really gets him excited," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "He makes all the loose ball and hustle plays. He gets the majority of those plays no matter who we are playing."

There was one time in the first half when Kidd-Gilchrist seemed to go airborne for five feet and land on his belly trying to save a loose ball. He must have hit the deck at least 10 other times in the game. He went to the foul line 13 times, and may have deserved to have been there even more even though you won't ever catch him complaining because the rougher and tougher the game is, the more he likes it.

"I was just feeling it today. I just played good, or think I did," Kidd-Gilchrist said.

Calipari certainly thought he did. He said his star freshman was once again "vicious" on the court and really "stepped on the gas" when Kentucky needed it most.

"He wasn't bothered as much as some of other players by the physical play. He almost relished it," Calipari said.

Forget almost. He loved it.

"This is what I?live for," Kidd-Gilchrist, who has scored in double figures seven straight games, said. "I've always been that way.?I've got a lot of heart."

Yet that big heart was breaking just a few days ago when his mother was hospitalized back in New Jersey. He almost went home before UK's win over Lamar Dec. 22 to be with his mother a day early. He only stayed and played because teammates asked him to wait.

She was at Saturday's game along with family members and friends. Kidd-Gilchrist had to check his emotion when asked about her after the game and even admitted she had helped teach him "everything" about basketball as well as life.

"It meant a lot (to have her here). I stayed at the hospital with her. It's very hard to see your mother lying there in a hospital bed and you can't help her," he said. "I was crying my eyes out, but she was able to fight through it."

Maybe that's where he gets the tenacity that helps him fight through anything opponents throw his way — and Louisville did plenty to try and slow him down with little success. He carried the Cats offensively in the first half when he had 16 points and his four field goals were as many as the rest of the team had.

But don't think playing basketball gives him an escape from worrying about his mother.

"The game is not an escape," he said. "That's my mother. There's no escape from that. That's real life, not a game."

For Kentucky fans, this game meant almost as much and Kidd-Gilchrist delivered. Maybe it's no coincidence that in UK's other marquee game against North Carolina, he had his only other double-double. Great players tend to play their best on the big stage and there was a reason Kidd-Gilchrist was considered the No. 1 player in his recruiting class for two years before Davis and a few others moved ahead of him in the final recruiting rankings.

But if there is a better all-around freshman in the country, I want to see him. The Bluegrass Sports Commission named the most valuable player in what had to be the easiest call of the day.

"We are proud to present this award to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist," BSC executive director Terry Johnson. "In a very intense rivalry game, Michael stood out with an incredible all-around effort."

But for him, it was just routine.

"This is what I do," he said. "I just play and love playing. The bigger the game, the more I love it because I want to win so bad."

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