ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky forward Julius Randle has helped Big Blue Nation reach Big D, and along the way given his mother at least one more chance to see her big boy play a college game.
Carolyn Kyles was in Indianapolis last weekend when things were looking dire for the Wildcats. They were trailing in the second half against Michigan, and Kyles looked at her watch and realized that she would have to leave early in order to catch a flight home to Dallas.
So she packed up her belongings and tearfully hit the road, unsure of whether Randle's career would end without her. The 6-foot-9 freshman is expected to be a lottery pick in the June draft.
"I knew she was going to have to leave," Randle said upon reflection, "so I just wanted to make sure I won so I could see her again."
It all worked out quite well.
Kyles made it back to the Dallas area in time to report to her accounting job that Monday, and Randle helped usher Kentucky to heart-stopping 75-72 victory over Michigan.
Now, Randle and the Wildcats are set to face Wisconsin in the national semifinals on Saturday night. The game will be played at AT&T Stadium, an easy trip down the interstate from the Dallas-area neighborhood where he grew up.
"I just wanted to make sure I did whatever I could to get back there," said Randle, who has averaged a team-leading 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds for the Wildcats.
"It's just added motivation that it's in Dallas," he said, "but any kid wants to play in the Final Four. I don't care if it's on the moon. You want to play in the Final Four. But for it to be in my hometown, it's special as well."
Especially considering Randle is about as Texas as it gets.
He starred at Prestonwood Christian Academy, a powerhouse program in Plano, helping the school win three state titles. Randle was also a member of the Texas Titans, an elite AAU program, and his mother played basketball at Texas-Arlington.
He's not the only Kentucky player with roots in the Lonestar State, of course. Twin brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison grew up in Richmond, just outside of Houston.
But it's not the same kind of homecoming for them as for Randle, who remembers doodling on a piece of paper in study hall in high school when he learned that the Final Four had been awarded to the glitzy new football stadium that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was raising.
"It's kind of weird. It's just what I asked for," Randle said. "I was in study hall and I didn't have anything to do, and I found out it was here, the national championship, Dallas. It's just where I wanted to be and it's always been my goal."
To reach that point, a team that starts five freshmen had to grow and evolve, and Randle was part of that. He always had the physical tools — an NBA-ready body, a tenacious rebounding ability, a deft touch — but he lacked the finer points of playing in the post.
Then there's the mental part of the game, where Kentucky coach John Calipari went to work.
"He's played better and better as the year's gone on," Calipari said Thursday. "Basically he's doing less, which looks like more. But it's hard to convince young people that way. It's hard to convince any of our players that if you're doing less, you're going to look better."
There are times where it's been hard to look a whole lot better.
There was the time Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds against Michigan State. And the 25-point, 13-rebound performance against Ole Miss. And any of the four double-doubles that he's had in the NCAA tournament, capped by that sterling performance against Michigan.
The one his mother dragged herself away from, only to get another chance to see him play.
"She's always telling me just to enjoy being a college student, not to worry about her, not to worry about taking care of her," Randle said. "She says to enjoy being a college student because she doesn't want to put that type of pressure on me and there's no need to. I'm just blessed to be here, playing basketball at Kentucky and that's all I can really focus on."