The Richmond Register

April 3, 2014

BASKETBALL: For Hawkins, trip to final four as a Wildcat is a dream come true

By Bob Flynn
Register Sports Writer

RICHMOND — Former Madison Central standout Dominique Hawkins and his University of Kentucky Wildcats teammates are in Dallas, Texas preparing for Saturday’s Final Four showdown with Wisconsin.

It’s a trip that up until three weeks ago seemed more like a fantasy than reality.

The freshman-laden Wildcats went through an up-and-down season and entered the Southeastern Conference Tournament losers of three of their final four regular-season games.

The week between the loss at Florida and the SEC Tournament, coach John Calipari pulled out his mysterious “Tweak” of the Cats in practice. Though no one will say exactly what the tweak was, it evidently worked.

Suddenly, in the SEC Tournament, the ultra-talented team that struggled all season with consistency and lack of team play that left Wildcat fans scratching their heads, and national media all but writing the team off, was no where to be found.

In its place was a team that fought and scratched from tip-off to the final buzzer on its way to consecutive convincing wins over LSU and Georgia.

One night later, the Wildcats were one play away in the final seconds from upsetting top ranked Florida in the championship game — the same Gators who had beaten them twice, including a 21-point spanking a week earlier.

Hawkins said there was a different mindset with the team during the week of practices heading into the SEC Tournament, so the resulting improved play wasn’t unexpected.

“We weren’t happy with the way we were playing at the end of the season. Each one of us wants to win. Practicing going into the SEC we were practicing like we wanted to win so we felt going in that we were going to play better,” Hawkins said. “So the way we played in the SEC didn’t surprise us at all. The way we played in the tournament gave us a lot of confidence because we beat two good teams and we battled Florida till the end of the game and had a chance to win it.”

Despite their play in the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats received only a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and were placed in the toughest region in the field.

That left the players and UK fans alike feeling like many people around the country didn’t have a lot of respect for the Wildcats and their chances of going very far in the tournament.

In an interview prior to UK’s second-round game against Kansas State in St. Louis, Hawkins said the low seed gave the Cats a little extra motivation. He then made a bold prediction aimed at the doubters around the country.

“When I saw that we were a No. 8 seed I felt like that we should have been higher than that. But you know what? We’re fine with that,” Hawkins said. “We feel like we have something to prove. We are going to go out and show people that we are better than what they think and show the world that we can play with anybody.”

Over the course of the past two weeks, Hawkins and the Wildcats have done just that, putting together their second-longest winning streak of the season against the toughest competition they’ve faced all year.

They opened their tournament run with a 56-49 win over Kansas State. Two nights later in a game that became an instant classic, the Cats took down the region’s No. 1 seed, handing Wichita State its first loss of the season, 78-76.

Last Friday in Indianapolis the Wildcats got an even sweeter win when they took down arch-rival and defending national champion, Louisville 74-69.

Then on Sunday, in another down-to-the-wire battle, UK beat Michigan on an Andrew Harrison three-pointer in the final three seconds, putting them in the Final Four for the second time in three years.

Though he didn’t play in UK’s first two NCAA games, in both the Louisville and Michigan games, Hawkins was a major contributor to the wins.

Against the Cardinals, Hawkins played 18 minutes, much of it late in the contest when the outcome of the game was very much in doubt — he came up big.

Hawkins was given the task of trying to slow down Russ Smith, Louisville’s leading scorer and most potent offensive weapon.

And he did just what was asked of him, holding the Card’s senior leader to only five points on 1-of-7 shooting while he was on the floor.

Against Michigan, again Hawkins was assigned to help guard Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines’ leading scorer, and again he was a bulldog on defense, harassing the Michigan sharp-shooter all over the floor in the 11 minutes he was in the game.

And while the number of minutes he has played for UK this season isn’t what he was used to in high school, Hawkins said after Sunday’s win that he’s comfortable with his role with the Cats.

“It’s a different role for me than high school, but I’m fine with it. When coach calls on me I just do whatever I can to help this team win,” Hawkins said. “I’m happy and I’m blessed to be able to play on this team. I know what my role is and I just try to compete, play great defense and do whatever it takes to get the team a win.”

The Cats are now just two wins away from winning a national title which would be UK’s ninth. After Sunday’s win, Hawkins told reporters that playing in the NCAA Tournament for UK and winning a title is something he’s always dreamed of doing.

“As a Kentucky kid playing in Kentucky and being able to say I’m in the Final Four is a dream come true,” Hawkins said. “When I came to Kentucky I didn’t really think about how I was going to play in an NCAA Tournament. Now that it’s happening and we’re going to play in the Final Four, it’s amazing and its so surreal. It’s definitely a dream come true.”