Blockers Stop Shockers

Malik Monk. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

Malik Monk. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

When this young Kentucky team was racing up and down the court on its way to a bunch of 90-plus point games in November and December (including three straight 100-point games), John Calipari insisted this could turn out to be his best defensive team.

Sunday, that team showed up. On an afternoon of bruising slogs at both ends of the court, hard fouls and intense bumping in the post, the Wildcats beat Wichita State at its own game. It held the Shockers to 39 percent shooting, 33 percent from beyond the arc, stole the ball, forced turnovers and blocked five shots.

Two of those blocks were game-winners. With 12 seconds left in the game, Kentucky up one, Monk skied vertically to block a Markis McDuffie three-point shot. And 12 seconds later, at the buzzer, Bam Adebayo blocked Landry Shamet’s game-tying attempt.

That Bam block will go down in Kentucky history as “that Bam block.” What it might never say is that, at three seconds, as Shamet was loading up his shot, Dominique Hawkins flew in his face, arms up and waving, forcing the Wichita State shooter to bring the ball back down and reload. That’s when Bam came off his man to deflect the shot into the air as the buzzer sounded.

So it will be there, in the record, as Kentucky’s advance to the Sweet Sixteen, its 31st win of the season, its 13th straight. What the record won’t show, for people who didn’t actually see the game, was a Kentucky team thrown way off its normal way of doing business.

Monk’s shot has mysteriously disappeared. He hit only three of them all afternoon. The troubling thing is that he was three-for-10. The good thing is that he wasn’t three-for-24. Sometimes, when premier shooters are struggling, they keep throwing it up, hoping the leprechaun will eventually reappear on their shoulders. Monk, on the other hand, played in astounding control, helping draw attention from the Wichita State defense so Hawkins, De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe could drive the lane. Or that Wichita State’s burly defenders had to lay off Bam just a little bit.

Not that anyone else exactly lit it up. Fox hit some layups but also missed a bunch. Bam seemed to be playing the entire game with one of the Wichita State sumo wrestlers draped over his shoulders. Hawkins and Briscoe hit a few early, but then they sort of disappeared. Derek Willis hit a couple of threes and seems to be getting his shooting rhythm back. Against Northern Illinois, he looked like he was almost catapulting the ball, pushing it rather than soft-releasing it.

Instead of continuing to heave rocks, Monk stayed in the Kentucky weave, helping the ball slide from side to side, forcing the Wichita State defenders to keep moving with it, playing defense with their hands instead of their feet, reaching in and committing fouls.

But when the Cats needed it most, at the two-minute mark clinging to a two-point lead, Monk stepped back and hit one of those long three-pointers Big Blue Nation has been so accustomed to.

And with a one-point lead and 10 seconds left, Monk calmly dropped two of his six free throws.

In fact, if the Cats had been more efficient at the free throw line, they could have put this game away a little earlier. Bam missed three of four, and Fox and Willis both missed one-of-twos.

So the Cats slogged it out. For the most part, the racetrack was closed. They couldn’t keep Wichita State off the boards, but by the end of the game, Kentucky had asserted its rebounding strength. They had several Shockers in foul trouble – including the pesky Shamat, who played the last several minutes with four fouls. They used the clock well for the most part. And then there were the two great defensive stops.

And so Kentucky is headed for Memphis and the Sweet Sixteen. And the UCLA Bruins. Many will make much of the revenge factor – paying the Bruins back for the five-point loss in December at Rupp.

Everyone tried to stir up the revenge factor for the Wichita State game too, reminding the world how Kentucky had halted Wichita’s undefeated season in 2014, in that year’s first weekend.

My feeling is, this is the win-or-go-home NCAA tournament. Nobody needs a revenge factor or a reminder of a previous loss at this point of the season. Nobody should anyway.

Nobody simply wants to go home. That should be enough. VT