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December 31, 2011Nine days before, Cindy Richardson had been in the hospital, her condition serious enough that her son had flown home early to see her.
But on Saturday, there she was, in the stands at Rupp Arena. And that son of hers, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was locking eyes with her.
He was on his way to a 24-point, 19-rebound performance that powered No. 3 Kentucky to a 69-62 win against No. 4 Louisville in the sort of down-and-dirty game that Kidd-Gilchrist said he's "built for."
"And she was just smiling," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "So I just smiled back at her."
The grittiest guy in the game was grinning. He had reason to.
Kidd-Gilchrist hasn't revealed why his mother was hospitalized last week, but her condition was serious enough that he booked an earlier-than-scheduled flight home for Christmas - it required a police escort to get him to the airport following Kentucky's home game against Loyola (Md.) - and spent a night at her bedside.
"She was in a hospital bed," Kidd-Gilchrist said Saturday. "That's life right there. It's not no games. It's just life, and that's what I saw."
Kidd-Gilchrist knows loss. His father died when he Kidd-Gilchrist was 2 years old. Last year, his uncle Darrin Kidd died on the day Kidd-Gilchrist signed with Kentucky. Those losses only served to strengthen the bond he has with his mother.
"I struggled, moms (and) me," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "My father wasn't there. My uncle left me. It's just a struggle. All my family and friends back in Jersey, they just mean a lot to me. I always think about them now, just all the time."
That drive has made Kidd-Gilchrist tougher, he said; better-suited for the rigors of a game like Saturday's. It's why he could rise to the challenge when Louisville (12-2) roared back from a 15-point deficit to tie the game. It's why he could play through the bumps of Kentucky's most physical game this season.
"He wasn't bothered as much as some of the other players by the physical play," UK coach John Calipari said. "He almost relished it and just went after it, and that's why he played the way he did."
Both teams racked up foul trouble - Louisville committed 29 personal fouls, Kentucky 23 - and with forward Anthony Davis on the bench much of the first half, Kidd-Gilchrist told himself that rebounding was the priority.
He had nine by halftime.
But Kidd-Gilchrist also was an offensive weapon. His 24 points (like the 19 rebounds) were a career high, and on a day when his teammates were 1-for-12 from three-point range, Kidd-Gilchrist was 2-for-4. He made 8-of-13 free throws.
With 15:23 to play in the game, Louisville tied the score at 40-40 on a four-point play by Russ Smith, who led the Cardinals with 30 points. Kidd-Gilchrist responded with three straight points, and Kentucky (13-1) led the rest of the way.
That Kidd-Gilchrist showed up in a big moment - and that he thrived in a rugged Dream Game - came as no surprise to his teammates.
"That's how he plays," UK senior Darius Miller said. "He plays extremely tough and physical like that. He did a great job of pretty much carrying us today. He did a great job of scoring, playing defense, rebounding. He had a lot of clutch
plays that helped us win the game."
Kidd-Gilchrist is averaging 19 points and 10.7 rebounds in the last three games. And though that's come in the days since he first learned his mother was hospitalized, Kidd-Gilchrist all but turned up his nose at the suggestion he used basketball as an escape from real life.
"It's not an escape," he said. "It was my mother. I can't escape that. It's not an escape at all."
On the night that he rushed home, Kidd-Gilchrist said he was "crying my eyes" out as he sat by his mother's hospital bed.
On Friday, she was in Lexington, 100 percent healthy, and he stayed with her again, this time under much different circumstances.
"We talked about life and just me growing up," he said.
His basketball development, at least, was apparent on Saturday. MKG was the MVP of the game, an honor officially bestowed by the Bluegrass Sports Commission, but apparent to anyone watching.
"This is me right here," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "This what I live for. I've always been that way. I've got a lot of heart, and I'm built for this."