At halftime, this was a game. Kentucky only led Arkansas by three at intermission, but after what I’m sure was a pleasant halftime speech by John Calipari, the Cats came out and took care of business in the second half, wearing the Razorbacks out with ten minutes left and winning by a final score of 97-71. Everyone was curious how Malik Monk would handle facing his home state school, but it was De’Aaron Fox who stole the show tonight, finishing with a season-high 27 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds.
Let’s break down the rest of it before the refs call another foul, okay?
Fox did what Fox does best
It’s redundant, but man, De’Aaron Fox is so fast. Fox was a blur for most of the second half, putting his head down and burning the Razorbacks with his speed. After scoring only 22 points in the last two games, Fox had 16 in the second half, a season-high 27 overall, and when he penetrates the lane like he did tonight, you’re reminded why he’s so critical to Kentucky’s fast-paced attack; after some mandatory extra work in the gym, Calipari was happy to see it.
“De’Aaron Fox is ridiculous. He’s been doing extra work. He’s been coming to practice early, not by choice, and he has really been working and it showed in the game. I said to the guys. What do you want to say to him? Do this every night, man. Play this way. This is who you are.”
Mike Anderson wants you to stop asking about Malik Monk
This was a loaded game for the Arkansas native, who was basically recruited by the Razorbacks since he could dribble a ball. Monk’s older brother Marcus played basketball and football at Arkansas and the entire Arkansas basketball team came to watch Malik play in high school; they wanted him that badly. At the start of the game, it looked like Monk was going to hang 50 on his home state school, but he tried to do too much and went to the bench with foul trouble for most of the first half. Monk never really got going in the second, but finished with 12 points and three assists, which, for most players would be a relatively decent outing. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson embraced Monk after the game in the handshake line, but quickly shut down talk of him in the postgame press conference.
“This is Arkansas vs. the University of Kentucky, not Arkansas vs. Monk. Monk’s a hell of a player, we know that. I don’t think I would have recruited him since he was in ninth grade if I didn’t think he was a hell of a player. So let’s get past that. It’s Arkansas vs. Kentucky. Thank you.”
While Mike Anderson clearly needed to take a chill pill, Calipari anticipated what an emotional night this would be for Monk and met with him and his family beforehand to discuss it.
“I said after, look, Malik, it’s really hard playing your hometown team. It’s just hard. How you played, you played good,” Cal said, recalling Tony Barbee playing poorly vs. Purdue, his hometown school, during his days at UMass. “It’s hard to play those kind of games. You can say it’s not hard, but it’s really hard. He did good, though.”
The good news is we won’t play Arkansas again, unless in the SEC Tournament, and even then, Kentucky scored 97 points when Malik Monk only scored 12. That’s the best takeaway from tonight, in my opinion.
It got chippy
There was more than one scuffle in tonight’s game, including Jaylen Barford’s Christian Laettner-esque stomp on Isaiah Briscoe in the second half, which prompted De’Aaron Fox to step in and defend his teammate and draw the double-technical:
We’re hard on the Rupp Arena crowd sometimes, but hearing them boo Barford heartily every time he touched the ball from then on was priceless. Between this, Malik Monk getting hit in the nether regions, strength coach Rob Harris getting ejected, and Bam getting into it with Moses Kingsley after an inadvertent elbow, tonight was the latest in a string of feisty games between the two former rivals. Which is why it makes so much sense that…
Kentucky took the second half personally
After leading by only three at halftime, Kentucky outscored Arkansas 56-33 in the second half. Whether it be Calipari ripping into them at half or the chippiness of the game raising the hairs on their neck, there’s no denying that the Kentucky that came out in the second half was a different team. Calipari preened like a proud papa when describing how his team set the tone in the second half.
“Let me say this: My team won’t be bullied,” Cal said. “This isn’t that kind of team. The issue is it gets you more focused, sharper, and more disciplined. That’s what good teams are. You’re not going to bully us into a loss. That’s not how these kids — you think about who is on this team. So they’ll fight back.”
Bam Adebayo, who finished with 11 points and 7 rebounds, echoed that sentiment to reporters afterwards.
“We’re like brothers so we take up for each other. It brings us closer because nobody is going to come between us. We just fought harder…We won’t back down. Nobody’s going to punk us.”
Derek broke out of his shooting slump
With Monk on the bench most of the first half, someone had to step up and make shots, and tonight, it was Derek Willis, who broke out of his shooting slump in thrilling fashion. Derek finished with 15 points, the most he’s had since the first game of the season, off 6-8 shooting, 3-5 from behind the arc. Derek’s been waiting for his shot to fall for weeks, and when it finally did, you could feel his relief course through Rupp Arena.
“Willis — the guy that keeps haunting us,” Anderson said of Derek. “Last year he haunted us at Bud Walton Arena, and tonight he haunted us as well. He’s one of those stretch guys — and it just seems like I go and watch games and he don’t shoot it like that — but when the Razorbacks show up, he lights it up.”
“I thought Derek Willis was outstanding,” Cal said. “Getting better defensively, getting better rebounding the ball.”
Free throws were better
One note that will make everyone happy is Kentucky’s improved performance at the free throw line. The Cats were 28-40 from the charity stripe for a season-high 70%. After admitting that the team didn’t focus on free throws early on in the season, Calipari said they’ve been a focal point of Camp Cal.
“I can’t begin to tell you how many foul shots we’ve shot here through what you guys would call Camp Cal,” Cal said. “For us, we didn’t practice free throws a whole lot. We didn’t have time. We didn’t practice situational basketball before Christmas. We didn’t have time. Now we get to where we have the time.”
Camp Cal’s coming to an end
Better free throws, better defense, and better shot selection. Well, we’re still working on the last one, but I think we can all agree Camp Cal was a success, right? With Hamidou Diallo expected on campus in the coming days, Calipari said he’s going to take his team out to dinner to celebrate a successful winter break.
“We’re going to have a celebratory dinner because Camp Cal’s over,” Cal said on his radio show, mentioning Malone’s, Texas Roadhouse, and Red Lobster as potential dining spots. “Maybe Red Lobster Remember Red Lobster?”
Calipari bringing up cheddar biscuits means he’s feeling good, and you should too, because on a night when they were far from their best, the Cats beat a decent Arkansas team by 26.