NEW ORLEANS — Whatever the future holds for Darius Miller, he’ll always have Monday night.
His well-documented tenure at Kentucky concluded with a 67-59 victory against Kansas in the national championship game. More importantly, as one of two seniors on the Wildcats’ roster, history may remember him as a dying breed — among the last of the “not-one-and-done.”
UK started two sophomores and three freshmen on Monday night. Miller took a seat as those five underclassmen prepared for the tipoff. Three minutes and 55 seconds into the game, John Calipari wheeled on his heels and barked above the roaring crowd to his “sixth starter”; Miller subbed in for sophomore Terrence Jones.
Miller went to work — rebound, rebound, rebound — until 6:52 remained in the first half, when he was replaced by freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
It was a stretch that personified Kentucky’s approach: play defense, play as a team. Maybe especially underlined by the fact that Anthony Davis, the Wildcats’ all-everything freshman, who did not score from the field in the first half (0-for-4) but had nine rebounds and four blocks as UK built a 41-27 halftime lead.
After the game, Calipari noted that UK’s team approach was a difference-maker. “I told them I wanted this to be one for the ages. Go out there and show everyone what kind of team you are, even though we were young.
“It doesn’t matter how young you are, it’s how you play together.”
No one exemplified that more than Miller.
History will show Miller’s final stat line: 2 of 5 from the floor; 1-for-2 from 3-point range; one offensive rebound; five defensive rebounds; two blocked shots; five points in 25 minutes.
Miller did nothing to lead the team — not numerically. How he led the team cannot be quantified by digits.
However, with the game on the line and Kentucky withstanding the final Kansas charge in the waning seconds, it was Miller bouncing from the sideline to the court to the sideline as Calipari moved the chess pieces to keep the Wildcats in the best position to win.
With 35 seconds remaining, Miller out, Kidd-Gilchrist in. With 23 seconds left, Kidd-Gilchrist out, Miller in. With 17 seconds to play, Miller out, Kidd-Gilchrist in.
As he came off the floor for the final time, Miller clinched his right fist, seemingly willing his team to continue to fight, to defend as a team.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, and Kansas coach Bill Self telling his players not to foul, Miller and the Wildcats celebrated. A former Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, Miller had reached the pinnacle — a national championship.
If anyone had foreseen that when he stepped on campus, Miller wasn’t one of them.
“My freshman year, I was in the NIT. … For it to change so fast, it’s amazing. I’m blessed to be part of something like this, especially with these guys.”
There it was again: the constant theme of team.
“I can’t really explain it or put it into words,” Miller said of being part of a national championship team. “All the hard work that we put in this year, the sacrifices that people have made on this team means a lot, especially with these guys.
“We’ve grown as brothers. We’ve had a lot of fun with this. I can’t really put into words how it feels.”
On Monday night, there was no need for words. Miller will have a lifetime to come up with whatever he needs to say.