HE CHARGED DOWN THE RIGHT WING OF THE GEORGIA DOME court, sprinting toward the basket as Baylor's most ruthless defender, 6' 7" senior forward Quincy Acy, tried to block his path. A little more than 11 minutes remained in the first half of the South Regional final, but this fast break had the feel of a tone-setting moment. Cupping the ball in his right hand as if he were showboating on the playground, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist took flight.
Soaring over Acy with startling ease, Kentucky's 6' 7" freshman forward laid the ball in off the glass for two of his 19 points to give the Wildcats a 21--10 lead. For the No. 3--seeded Bears, this leap over their leader was a spirit crusher; Baylor wouldn't get closer than eight points—and would trail by as many as 23—as Kentucky, the tournament's top seed, won 82--70.
"Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is by far the best player in the open court in the country," says an SEC assistant coach who scouted Kentucky this season. "He puts you in a position where you have to foul him as he attacks the rim. He's the key to Kentucky's transition offense, which is the key to all of their success."
Another big part of that success, of course, has been national player of the year Anthony Davis, whose midair collision with Baylor's Perry Jones III—and subsequent writhing in pain on the floor—took the air out of the UK fans who had made the 380-mile trip. But less than two minutes after that second-half collision, Davis was back in the game. "The knee is doing fine," he said after finishing with 18 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks.
In the Sweet 16, Indiana coach Tom Crean had told his defenders to lay off Kidd-Gilchrist in the Hoosiers' half-court defense in order to encourage him to shoot long-range jumpers. (He had shot only 25.0% from beyond the arc.) But the plan backfired: The Wildcats' forward consistently sliced through the lane, scoring a team-high 24 points in the 102--90 win. He had 11 in the first half and, with teammate Terrence Jones (12 in the first half) picked up the slack when Davis went to the bench with two fouls just 5:55 into the game.
At 18 years and six months, Kidd-Gilchrist, who grew up in Somerdale, N.J., is the youngest player on this young Wildcats team, but he has already endured a lifetime's worth of heartache. His father, Michael Gilchrist Sr., was shot and killed in 1996, when Michael Jr. was two. One of the boy's uncles, Darrin Kidd, became a father figure to him, but on Nov. 10, 2010—the day his nephew signed a letter of intent to attend Kentucky—Kidd died of a heart attack despite Michael Jr.'s attempts to revive him. Last summer he changed his surname to honor both men. After that, "leaving home was very hard," says Kidd-Gilchrist, "but all of my teammates [here] helped me through it."
After the nets were cut down in Atlanta, Kidd-Gilchrist, who was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player, led his team off the floor, waving to Big Blue Nation's legion of fans. He then disappeared into the locker room, where the engine that powers Kentucky finally cooled down. Still, he said softly in front of his locker, "I'm not satisfied. Can't wait until New Orleans."