The versatile Kentucky junior made game-changing offensive and defensive plays in the final 90 seconds here Sunday to help UK beat North Carolina 76-69 and get back to its first Final Four since the 1998 national championship season.
“I am still speechless. This is my first time here. I don’t know how to react to it. Maybe I will be more happier tomorrow,” said Liggins.
He made Kentucky fans delirious Sunday with his normal stat-stuffing line of 12 points, four assists, three steals, two rebounds and one blocked shot.
The block came with UK clinging to a 70-69 lead after NC point guard Kendall Marshall drove by Liggins, who then somehow came from behind to block the shot. If that wasn’t big enough, he made a 3-pointer from the corner after Darius Miller penetrated and threw the ball to him. His shot gave the Cats a 73-69 lead with 35 seconds to play.
“Kendall Marshall drove past me and my length gave me the ability to block that shot. He drove fast me and my long arms, I stretched out and blocked the shot,” Liggins said. “Darius drove the ball and Coach (John Calipari) said if it is a kick-out (pass), then shoot it. I shot with confidence and made it.
“I had confidence to make it and did. I know how I was shooting the ball. I constantly get shots up and my shot was falling. Last year I shot the ball pretty well, but not like this year.”
A few seconds later, Calipari and Liggins appeared to bump heads as they embraced in front of the UK bench.
“I kissed him on the forehead is what I did,” Calipari said. “He didn't kiss me back I can tell you that.”
“We still had a game to play. The game wasn't over. I love him as a coach. He defined my game greatly. He made me the player I am now and I respect him and I love him to death,” Liggins said.
The feeling is mutual.
“He knows how proud I am. He has come so far as a player, trusting people, trusting his coaches, this kid works. He is in the gym. He's overcome a lot of stuff,” Calipari said. “DeAndre has overcome a lot. And you look at him now. He defends, he is unselfish, he makes plays, his skills are improved.”
Junior teammate Eloy Vargas leaped into the air when Liggins made his 3-pointer partially because of the score and partially because he’s become close to Liggins and knows what he has overcome.
“That is my main man right there. That is why I was excited. He is not afraid. He came from a really bad area and to see him play here, he’s not afraid,” Vargas said. “He is feeling great and I am proud of him. I have been talking to him more about life and know he has had it tough. Nobody really knows how tough. Me and him had a class and had to write a paper about life and I found out a bunch about him that people don’t know. He had it tough.”
However, he still has it tough at times from Calipari when he does make a mistake.
“I am on him to do the right things and if he screws up, he knows he will be there. But he performs. He is not afraid. He is making plays,” Calipari said.
Liggins did have one major mistake in the game. With UK leading 65-57 with just over five minutes to play, he made a steal but threw the outlet pass away and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes hit a 3-pointer to start a 10-2 run that tied the game 67-67 with 3:18 left.