Jones stepping into leadership role for Kentucky

NEW ORLEANS - Terrence Jones was on a mission, and no Florida defender was going to get in his way.
So the 6-foot-9, 252-pound Kentucky forward - barreling from one end of the court to another in Saturday's SEC Tournament quarterfinal game against the Gators - dribbled the ball behind his back, just the way he used to do it.
After Jones dropped 15 points and nine rebounds on the Gators in No. 1 Kentucky's 74-71 victory at the New Orleans Arena, he was asked where he'd been keeping that move.
"It was in Portland in high school," Jones said. "Coach (John Calipari) didn't let me bring that to Kentucky. He told me to leave that back home. I just told my mom to bring it when she came for the tournament."
He was smiling when he said it. He's been doing that a lot lately.
As Kentucky (32-1) prepares for Sunday's SEC Tournament title game against Vanderbilt, Jones is playing his best basketball.
In two games here, Jones is averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, and when UK has been at its best, it's been because Jones has taken over games.
He did it against Florida (23-10) on Saturday, coming up big in major moments in the second half.
With UK leading 57-56, Jones reeled off a quick five points - a three-pointer from the top of the key, then a one-handed dunk off an Anthony Davis miss - that stretched UK's lead to 62-56, and the Gators, who controlled the game early, never got closer than two points the rest of the way.
"He's been pretty much dominant, especially in stretches where we need him," teammate Darius Miller said. "He comes out and makes a lot of big plays, a lot of offensive rebounds to get us going. He's been a huge part of our success."
It hasn't always seemed that way this season.
After a strong freshman season that put him in position to be a first-round pick in the NBA Draft, Jones opted to return to Kentucky. At the time, he said he needed a year to mature and he wanted to chase an NCAA championship.
But Jones' sophomore season got off to a sluggish start. He scored in single digits in six of his first 12 games, including a four-point, one-rebound, six-turnover game in the Wildcats' only loss, at Indiana on Dec. 10.
There was a dislocated pinky finger that cost him two games. There were stretches when his effort was called into question. Jones had 13 double-doubles as a freshman but didn't record his first this season until an 15-point, 11-rebound game against Ole Miss on Feb. 18, in UK's 25th game.
Jones' sophomore season was shaping up as a disappointment, and he heard the whispers.
"Terrence Jones is an exceptional basketball player," Davis said. "Guys were talking bad about him and everything, he just wanted to
prove them wrong and show them what kind of basketball player he is."
Jones is averaging 13.7 points and eight rebounds per game over his last eight games, and his contribution isn't merely statistical.
As the Wildcats move into the stretch run, Jones - who was a critical piece of last season's Final Four team - has become a leader for teammates getting their first taste of postseason.
"When Darius isn't in, I'm one of the older guys on the floor," Jones said. "I just try to keep us together when times get tough and guys get a little frustrated."
The Wildcats have found themselves tested twice in the SEC Tournament. In both games, Jones has made critical plays.
On Saturday, those weren't limited to big buckets.
Florida's Brad Beal pulled his team to within two points, 68-66, with 1:55 to play in the game. Beal had a look at another that would have given the Gators the lead with 1:13 to play.
He missed, and Jones went high for the rebound. On Kentucky's ensuing possession, after a Doron Lamb miss bounced out of bounds, UK went to Jones on a post-timeout inbound play.
Jones drove at Erik Murphy and drew a foul. He made two free throws with 34 seconds to play that kept the Gators at bay.
Those are the plays Calipari wants out of Jones. He's less enthused about the behin-the-back dribble.
"Coach got kind of mad," Miller said. "I've seen Terrence do stuff like that before. He definitely has it in his game, but he doesn't show it a lot. He stays with the less-flashy play. He brought it out, and it kind of brought a smile to my face. Coach didn't seem to like it too much.
The way Miller sees it, Jones can be forgiven for a little sizzle. With the game on the line this weekend, he's been delivering a stake to the heart of Kentucky's opponents.
"He's carrying us," Miller said. "I feel like he's pretty much carrying the team right now. Whether we're down or trying to bust a lead open, it's always him making the plays, coming up big for us."