Lagerald Vick was the happiest person in the locker room.
While most on the Kansas basketball team viewed a 105-79 dismantling of Austin Peay in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament as routine, Vick leaned back in his chair and flashed a smile few have seen this season.
“I feel really good about myself right now,” he said.
Vick, a freshman, was understandably pleased. The seldom-used guard came off the bench far earlier than anyone expected to score a career-high seven points in 10 minutes, also finishing with two assists, one block and one steal. He hadn’t played that much since early December. More often than not, he has been a healthy scratch, playing only late in blowout victories.
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Things changed Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena.
Kansas coach Bill Self called on Vick with 15 minutes remaining and Austin Peay mounting a desperate comeback push. After trailing 48-28 at halftime, the Governors pulled within 55-40. Then starting point guard Devonte’ Graham picked up his fourth foul and shooting guard Brannen Greene complained of back pain. The Jayhawks needed a replacement, and Vick was surprisingly selected.
He responded immediately by stealing a pass on one end of the floor and scoring a layup on the other. Then he sent a nifty pass to Perry Ellis for a dunk. Before you knew it, Kansas stretched its lead to 71-44.
“He took over the game,” Self said, “for a short period of time where we needed to extend the lead.”
“He did an awesome job stepping in at a pretty crucial time,” Ellis added. “We had foul trouble and he handled the ball well and took control of the game as our point guard.”
The Jayhawks would have won this game with or without him, but Vick made things far easier than they could have been.
Vick helped the KU reserves flex their muscles in the process.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to think he can come in at the drop of a dime and he’s going to go out and get you seven points,” Self said. “... But I do have confidence in Lagerald. He’s our sixth perimeter player, and a lot of times the sixth perimeter player is odd man out, because we play five. But he looked good today and he looked confident.”
“Certainly, Brannen’s back has been bothering him and he didn’t move very good today and you had all the starters in foul trouble. We were going to play him regardless, and he responded like he’s supposed to. He was ready.”
Vick had to be. This is what he’s been waiting for.
Sure, it was difficult for him to spend so much time on the bench this season. But he went through a similar experience in high school, watching most of the games from the sideline as a freshman only to find a meaningful role in the Tennessee high school playoffs. He hoped to get a similar opportunity in the NCAA Tournament.
“I always stay ready and motivated,” Vick said. “I try to look at players on the court and tell them what they are doing wrong. Then, when my name is called, I try do things right.”
Vick said his best moments came on defense, but he was also excited about making the only three-pointer he attempted.
No one knows what the remainder of the NCAA Tournament has in store for Vick, but his teammates hopes it resembles his debut game.
“He can help us a lot,” freshman forward Carlton Bragg said. “He may only get one minute, but he can do certain things in that minute to really help us. He’s great at the little stuff. You saw that today.”
Kellis Robinett: @KellisRobinett