TAMPA, Fla. – Brandon Knight missed his first seven shots and even found himself on the bench in the final minute against Princeton.
His confidence could have been shaken. His ego could have been bruised. After all, he was a freshman playing in his first NCAA tournament game.
Then again, Knight's no ordinary newcomer.
Held scoreless for more than 39 minutes, Knight made a driving layup with 2 seconds remaining to lift No. 4 seed Kentucky to a 59-57 win over 13th-seeded Princeton on Thursday.
"I have all the faith and confidence in the world in him," coach John Calipari said. "He's not afraid to make a play. Guys like him aren't afraid to miss."
The Tigers (25-7) shut Knight down much of the game, doubling him on drives, putting a hand in his face on the perimeter and contesting every shot.
A day earlier, Calipari proclaimed, "You can't count on freshmen." He pulled Knight down the stretch in favor of a taller defender. But with the game on the line, Calipari put the ball in Knight's hands.
The kid delivered, and Big Blue advanced to face West Virginia in the East regional Saturday.
"If we lose that game, the season's over," said Knight, who grew up about four hours south in Fort Lauderdale. "I would have been happy as long as we won, no matter who hit the shot. I was just fortunate enough to be in that situation to help my team get that win.
"Not making shots — it happens sometimes. I'm not going to sit here and focus on it. You know, move on. I'm just happy we won as a team."
Knight's winner was the biggest contribution Kentucky (26-8) got from its trio of talented freshmen. Terrence Jones finished with 10 points, Doron Lamb added seven and Knight failed to reach double figures for the first time in 29 games.
"I think they had the jitters at their first NCAA tournament game ever that they've been watching since they're 12 and all of a sudden starting in the NCAA tournament that's on national television," Calipari said. "How we escaped — I will have to go watch the tape and figure it out."
With those guys off, upperclassmen carried the Wildcats most of the way. Darius Miller scored 17 points, and lone senior Josh Harrellson added 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Deandre Liggins chipped in eight points, including a 3-pointer with 5:38 remaining and a driving bank shot with a little more than a minute to play.
But Princeton, the school known for scaring — and even beating — some of college basketball's most storied programs in the NCAA tournament, never gave up.
"I think we prepared this whole week to beat these guys, and you know, our team believed that we could do it," senior Kareem Maddox said. "I mean, I don't know if there was one moment where the switch kind of flipped, but you know, I just think we knew what kind of team we had and what kind of heart we had, and we knew we could compete."
The Tigers sure did.
Maddox hit a turnaround jumper with 57.8 seconds remaining, and Dan Mavraides sank a step-back jumper with 36.7 seconds left that tied the game.
Calipari called timeout and got Knight back into the game. Knight dribbled the ball near midcourt, keeping an eye on the dwindling clock, and started moving with about 10 seconds left. He broke down one defender, blew by Maddox — the Ivy League's defensive player of the year — and floated a perfect shot off the backboard.
"I think it was a difficulty 10 layup," Mavraides said. "Kareem's our longest, biggest defender. There's no one else I'd rather have on him driving to the basket at that late-game situation. Before that, he was 0 for 7, but he made the one that counted. It was a great shot. You have to tip your hat to him."
Knight's teammates erupted, as did the boisterous Kentucky faithful who filled the St. Pete Times Forum. The Tigers had one final chance, but they failed to get off a shot before the buzzer.
The Wildcats were relieved. Princeton coach Sydney Johnson was heartbroken. He cried during his postgame news conference, which came minutes after he brought his players back on the court for a curtain call.
Still, there's little Johnson would have done differently down the stretch.
"It was a tough, tough shot by a kid that we had bottled up pretty much the whole game," Johnson said. "We felt like we had done an amazing job on him, and he just had one more play to make, which he did."