Since the moment the brackets came out and we found out Kentucky might play Wichita State in the second round, it seemed like the chips were starting to stack against the Cats. Sure, this Shockers squad isn’t nearly as good as the 2014 team whose perfect season Kentucky ruined, but still, they had the whole country and, seemingly, CBS, cheering for them. Wichita State fully embraced the underdog role, Gregg Marshall boasting about not having a single five-star on his roster and the players vowing to shut down Bam Adebayo. Even Gregg Marshall’s wife got in on the fun, screaming obscenities at Kentucky players and trying to get Kentucky’s favorite sports blog kicked out of the arena.
Fortunately, Kentucky didn’t play along with the narrative. It wasn’t pretty, but as they’ve done all season, the Cats found a way to win thanks to some huge, gutsy plays from its trio of star freshman. None of us would have guessed it, but Malik Monk’s biggest play of the game was a block. Monk blocked Markis McDuffie’s three with thirteen seconds left, keeping Kentucky ahead by one. Thirteen seconds later, the Shockers made another desperate attempt, but Landry Shamet’s three was blocked by Bam Adebayo at the buzzer. The game was over, and just like that, we’re going to Memphis.
Before the NCAA throws us out of here, let’s run down the rest of the game, shall we?
The first half was horrible
Wichita State’s plan to slow Kentucky down in the first half certainly worked. The Cats looked horrible and out of sync, shooting only 33% from the floor for a paltry 26 points. With Isaiah Briscoe struggling to play point, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis once again stepped up to steady the ship.
“Well, in the first half, Dom just played outstanding. I was thinking about starting him in the second half, but we got a good group that sticks together so I just went with what I was doing. Mychal Mulder made a huge 3. I put him back in to play the four. I was going to play he and Derek as the fours. I played Derek almost the whole half. He played well. Then Derek made the 3 in the corner, made a couple of 3s, rebounded pretty good. Ended up with eight rebounds and nine points. Think of that. Three steals. Derek Willis.”
Derek was clearly feeling good after the game, telling reporters, “I think it’s safe to say I was the best Willis on the court today.” (Darral Willis Jr. was the one who said the Shockers were going to shut down Bam)
Fox took over again
With the game close, most college basketball fans would expect freshmen to falter; however, as we’ve seen time and time again in the Calipari era, the freshmen rose to the occasion. Tired of Wichita State dictating the pace, De’Aaron Fox took over, stealing the ball with 4:11 left and slamming it home to cap a big Kentucky run.
“There’s been a couple games like that,” Fox said of his late game takeover. “The first one was, I think, Mississippi State. I think the SEC tournament, I was really good down the stretch. Also, the Georgia game, at Georgia, I was good down the stretch. So it’s just been a few games. We don’t have a go-to person down the stretch because we’ve got multiple guys that can get it done. If it’s my turn, I do it. Malik hit a big 3 off the dribble, and he knocked down clutch-free throws. Whoever hands the ball ends up in, that’s who does it.”
Fox would throw down another big slam with 1:25 left to put Kentucky up by four, but Wichita State wouldn’t go away. That’s when Monk and Bam stepped in.
The evolution of Malik Monk
Coming in the postseason, the one knock on Malik Monk’s game was that he didn’t play defense. Malik sure proved them wrong today. With his shot still sporadic, Monk made an impact on the game in other ways, skying high for rebounds, dishing out assists, and blocking Wichita State’s futile last second attempts.
“It was great to have Malik back,” Calipari said afterwards. “Haven’t seen him for a while. He’s on that path, still not all the way back, but he’s on the path that we need him on. And these guys up here, they’re young, but they have a will to win and play with courage and are skilled basketball players and great kids who share. So proud of them.”
Bam had the last word
After Wichita State’s Darral Willis Jr.’s vow to shut down Bam went viral, everyone was looking to see how the big man would respond. After a slow first half, Bam went to work in the second, scoring 11 of his 13 points and playing 19 of the 20 minutes. With other shots not falling, Bam’s slams kept the Cats in the game. In the final seconds, everyone knew Wichita State would shoot another desperation three. After Dominique Hawkins went after the pump fake, Bam saw the opportunity to make his block.
“The way it happened, my man had said a back screen for Zay. And the ball came to my side. He pump-faked Dom, so I had to help my teammate. As soon as he went to jump, I blocked it.”
Bam stayed humble, but his teammates couldn’t stop bragging on him after the game. Neither could his mother:
Bam Adebayo’s mother, Marilyn Blount, after UK’s victory over Wichita State. “He didn’t shut (Bam) down, did he?! Bam went at him!” pic.twitter.com/uRkR8B1vhD
— Tanner Hesterberg (@TannerWKYT) March 19, 2017
Next up: Memphis
The 2014 win over Wichita State was the moment the world realized that Kentucky could make a run. Will this year’s win result in a similar great story? If you asked me after the first half, I’d say no, but after watching three freshmen pull off one of the best finishes of the season and spoil CBS’ narrative in the process, I can’t wait to find out.