LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Jemarl Baker envisioned making an impact for Kentucky this season. He just didn’t know when his time would come to make a major contribution.
Baker, who missed his freshman season because of a knee injury, scored a combined 15 points in Kentucky’s first two games of the NCAA Tournament last weekend in Jacksonville. He tallied seven off the bench in a blowout win over Abilene Christian and topped his career high with eight in a 62-56 victory over Wofford last Saturday.
“I just pictured it being like this the whole time, being able to come in and get on the floor and make an impact,” Baker said. “I’ve been working hard my whole life to perform in moments like this and I just continue to get better, continue to be aggressive.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said following the win over Wofford that Baker was more than prepared to make a contribution.
“We coach every kid like they’re a starter,” he said. “That’s how they’re trained, every one of these kids. And I keep saying, we don’t know who’s going to be a star. What he did today defensively, he made a basket or two and we needed them. What he did defensively meant he was prepared for this moment.”
Baker’s two performances weren’t a surprise to his teammates, including Keldon Johnson.
“I’m so happy for him, to see him perform like that,” Johnson said. “I’m can’t say enough about how happy I am for him and to see him break through and to see him look good out there.”
Baker also received support from PJ Washington, who missed the first two games of the Big Dance because of a sprained foot. Washington supported his teammates from the bench vocally and was the team’s top cheerleader.
“He was hyped up and I loved it,” Baker said. “He never stopped talking throughout the whole game and I loved it. We’re a good team and we have people that can step up when it’s needed for sure. We’re just a good team and we can’t wait to have PJ back.”
Johnson managed just nine points in the win over Wofford and was hindered by foul trouble. Although scoring was hard to come by for Johnson, who scored 25 points in the NCAA opener against Abilene Christian, he stayed engaged on the court and on the sideline.
“When he was in the game, I was cheering him on just like he cheers me on,” Johnson said. “I was happy for him. Too see somebody go through so much and to bounce back like that in one of the biggest moments of the year.”
Now the Wildcats are in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in Calipari’s 10 seasons at the helm. Kentucky will take on Houston at 10 p.m. Friday night in Kansas City and Baker is hoping the Wildcats can keep dancing.
“We’re excited,” Baker said. “We’re happy to be able to move on, for sure. We don’t want to be the team going home. We just have to come up with a game plan and focus. We’re trying to win the whole thing. We’re excited that we’re not going home, but we have to take it one game at a time. We have another game coming up.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Houston, 10 p.m., Friday. TV/Radio: TBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.