Sean Kilpatrick appeared in line for a great senior year that would make the fan base appreciate his UC career, instead, his ascension of late grabbed the attention of a college basketball world appreciating his seizure of the national stage.
CINCINNATI -- The Sean Kilpatrick story already played out like the feel-good movie of the season around UC athletics. The grinding senior expected to push his way to elite territory in school record books and enjoy a swan song in reward for returning to school as a 24-year-old.
Fans would applaud. Teammates would brohug. Mick Cronin would probably well up.
Only, of late, the feel-good story of Kilpatrick executed a plot twist that would make Steven Spielberg set his Oscar down.
Suddenly, the work-hard scorer enjoying a fun senior season for local diehards to appreciate has tossed this team on his back and made the entire nation take notice. An enjoyable ride morphed into an unprecedented adventure, one Kilpatrick masterpiece at a time.
The last four games with victories against two ranked teams and twice on the road, he's averaged 25.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists. His leadership calmed tornadic storms, his free throws buried desperate hopes, his confidence lifted all boats.
Now the Bearcats are 22-2, 11-0 in conference, winners of 15 straight and ranked No. 7 in the country. He's the clear front-runner for American Player of the Year, but now elicits realistic mentions as a first-team All-American.
During his finest work of art yet, racking up 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in topping No. 22 Connecticut Thursday, students chanted "M-V-P!" as he stood at the free throw line in the final seconds. That award doesn't exactly exist in college basketball, but no matter. The reverence nonetheless deserved and understood.
The last four games, an already great individual season turned special.
"No doubt about it," Cronin said. "Mark of great players is they rise to the occasion. He has the ability to rise to the occasion."
The rising of the numbers stand impressive enough. He's hit 43 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep over the four-game stretch. Knocked down 28 of 32 free throws, most in defining moments. He's notched 12 games of at least 20-plus points this year. Nobody else in the conference managed more than eight.
Kilpatrick rose for one-handed dunks that sparked season-altering runs. He silenced crowds and ignited them.
Yet, the more impactful element of his special play has been the method behind his madness. He's not seeking points or prestige, averages or awards.
He cares about wins and being a leader of his team. That's it.
"I am just doing my job. I'm not the MVP, my whole team is the MVP," Kilpatrick told us, crediting his teammates for all the success. Fairly unprecedented stuff in a college sport stuffed with players seeking SportsCenter moments and enough shine to impress NBA scouts.
Outdueling Shabazz Napier, as he did resoundingly Thursday, didn't enter his conversation before, during or after one of his greatest games. The only reality clearer than Kilpatrick's skill was his humility and maturity.
"I'm playing to win," Kilpatrick said. "I am just playing to win. I don't care about points. I don't care about any of that. To help my team win and put them in the best situation that's something leaders do. Leaders don't go out there and try to compete against the other best players and try their hardest to outscore them. The only score that matters is the final score. Your points don't matter at all."
As it was his 26 points came on an ultra-efficient 15 shots. The most significant difference in Kilpatrick's offensive rating ballooning from 108.5 last season to 121.4 has been a lesson in shot selection and trust in teammates. That offensive rating ranks fourth in the country among those used on at least 28 percent of their teams possessions.
He plays smarter basketball. He plays winning basketball. Consequently, the Bearcats do, too.
As the game went on Oscar Robertson, from his standard court side seat, would motion for Kilpatrick to keep shooting. Nobody at UC can touch Oscar's unprecedented aura, but Kilpatrick couldn't help even letting the Big O know what everyone in the nation is now understanding.
"He kept giving me the signals to shoot," Kilpatrick said with a laugh before reverently referring to Robertson a legend. "I told him just relax, we got it."
He was right, leaving Oscar able to sit back, smile and wonder along with the other 12,432 at Fifth Third Arena what the next exciting chapter will be in this coming-of-age tale. The final stanza has begun to be written.
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