This was Kentucky as we seldom see Kentucky. This was Kentucky as an underdog, which it rarely is, Kentucky the hunter, as opposed to the prey. This wasn’t the Kentucky we see on the road in the SEC or even in Rupp Arena. This was Kentucky with a point to prove.
Technically the Wildcats were the higher seed, but UCLA was the choice in Vegas, the UCLA of Lonzo Ball, whose dad LaVar has spent the past month telling the world his son is the greatest player since … well, since ever. What we saw here Friday left the clear impression that Ball wasn’t the best guard among collegians. Certainly he was second-best on this floor.
De’Aaron Fox scored 39 points and drove his team in a way that Ball did not. The game was a back-and-forth thing for a half, but then Malik Monk got going and the combination of those two freshmen left UCLA – which has two vaunted freshmen in Ball and T.J. Leaf – in the dust, which is a place these sleek Bruins have never been. Kentucky won 86-75, a score that reflected the game itself.
It was one of the best NCAA tournament performances by Kentucky under John Calipari, which is saying something given that his teams have reached four Final Fours since 2010 and taken a national title. They played with a focused fury. Coming off the floor at halftime with a three-point lead, Monk looked at a teammate offered a grim nod: “We can do this,” the gesture seemed to say. “We are doing this.”
UCLA had beaten Kentucky in Rupp on Dec. 3, but that was a while ago and the Bruins entered with the element of surprise. (They’d gone 15-17 last season.) But this was March and this was win or else, and these McDonald’s All-Americans don’t sign with Calipari to exit in the Sweet 16.
“Every game we play is a Super Bowl,” Calipari said. “Every game we play is a war.” But the underdog designation seemed to change the dynamics that are part and parcel of being Kentucky. The Wildcats were freer, more aggressive. They weren’t willing to take the first punch. They wanted to throw it.
Said Fox: “I think I scored like the first eight points of the game, and I thought then, ‘It’s going to be a special night.’ ”
Monk: “He just did not want to lose and we did not want to lose. He was scoring so we kept giving him the ball.”
Calipari: “At the half we asked our guys, ‘Are you watching this game? If you are, you know we’re playing through De’Aaron Fox. That’s what this (second) half is going to be, the whole half.”
The first 4:44 of the second half saw Kentucky score 14 points, all by Fox and Monk. By then it was clear: The Wildcats were able to slow UCLA a little – the Bruins made 13 turnovers, four of them Ball’s – but UCLA couldn’t guard the Big Blue at all. The losing side made 63 percent of its second-half shots and somehow was outscored 50-42.
As the game unraveled, Ball appeared to lose interest. He finished with 10 points and eight assists. He announced afterward that this was his final game as a Bruin, and maybe his dad’s ceaseless patter had done his son a disservice. Ball might well be the NBA’s No. 1 draftee come June, but his March exit was a damp squib.
Now Kentucky faces North Carolina, a team it beat behind Monk’s 47 points in Las Vegas in December. Carolina will be favored, but that could play into Calipari’s motivational wheelhouse. The strings he pulled against UCLA were master strokes – we can’t say the same of all this coach’s Big Dance moments – and he’ll need a few more to take down the Tar Heels.
Still, having to play Carolina means that Kentucky is still playing, which is all that matters. It was only five days ago that the Wildcats were life-and-death to beat 10th-seeded Wichita State, but there’s something about being an underdog that suits the ‘Cats. It makes them lean and hungry. It makes them dangerous.