If you had told me Kentucky would have beaten Florida by ten without De’Aaron Fox, I would have called you an optimist.
If you had told me Kentucky would have beaten Florida by ten halfway through that first half, I would have worried about your sanity.
Against all odds, Kentucky dug deep and found a way to rally from a 12-point first-half deficit to beat the Gators 76-66 to move into sole possession of first place in the SEC. Bizarrely enough, the things that have haunted the Cats so far this season were the reason they won; Kentucky dominated the boards, outhustled Florida in the second half, and rode the back of Malik Monk, who scored 33 points, 30 in the second half. Bam Adebayo was a force in the middle, scoring 18 points and grabbing 15 rebounds for his second straight double double. Dominique Hawkins may have only scored three points, but he did everything else, pulling down six rebounds, dishing out four assists, snagging two steals, and infusing the team with the heart and hustle we’ve been looking for all season. With Fox out, Dom not only kept the ship steady, he pulled it nicely into the harbor.
Barring collapse, Kentucky will be the #1-seed in the SEC Tournament, meaning they’ll play at 1 p.m. that Friday afternoon, ensuring a happy night on Broadway for the BBN. Really, today couldn’t have been better.
Let’s break it down.
Admit it: you thought they were going to lose in the first half
De’Aaron Fox confirmed speculation that he wasn’t going to play when he came out of the tunnel for intros in street clothes. That sinking feeling just got worse when Florida jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first half. Kentucky couldn’t buy a shot and looked totally out of sorts, letting the Gators jump ahead by 12 seven minutes in.
Then, an odd thing happened: even though Kentucky continued to struggle offensively, they fought back, clawing back to take the lead with seven minutes left in the first half and going in to the locker room tied with the Gators at 28. Despite shooting only 28.6%, committing 12 turnovers, and going the last seven minutes of the half without a field goal, Kentucky stayed in the game because of toughness and rebounding, mostly from its supporting cast of seniors. All they needed in the second half was offense.
Malik Monk took over in the second half
When his team needed it the most, Monk put in the best second half performance in the Calipari era. After scoring only three points in the first half, Monk scored 30 in the second off 8-13 shooting, 4-4 from three, and 10-11 from the free throw line. As we’ve seen a few times this season, Monk just got in the zone and couldn’t miss.
“He took the game over. It was amazing. It was probably the best performance against us this year,” Florida coach Mike White said of Monk afterwards.
“Oh, he got 30 in a half?” Cal said when asked about it after the game. “No wonder when I got on him about a couple bad shots he looked at me like I was crazy. I didn’t know he had 30 in a half. So, good for him.”
Bam looked good for the second straight game
Bam got his second straight double-double with 18 points and 15 rebounds, looking more and more like the force in the middle we all expected him to be. There are still times when he just needs to dunk it, but for the most part, Bam was stellar, especially on the boards. In the past two games, he’s had 40 points and 30 rebounds. Has Bam turned the corner?
“I hope so,” Cal said. “I hope so. Had a smile on his face, we did some things different to go at him where we’re saying, look, we’re either going to go at Malik or we’re going to go at Bam and then we’re going to play off that. We’re not going to try to make this fancy, let’s just do it. I like how we played when you’re one man down.”
In a game with a lot of telling stats, here’s one: Monk and Bam accounted for 42 of UK’s 48 2nd half points. This connection between the two was definitely a highlight:
– Wildcat Dunks (@WildcatDunks) February 25, 2017
After getting dominated on them in Florida, Kentucky owned the boards
Maybe the most eye-opening stat of the day? After getting outrebounded by Florida 54-29 in Gainesville three weeks ago, Kentucky dominated the boards this afternoon 48-30. That’s nearly a 40-rebound swing, and a critical component to Kentucky’s win. Right, Cal?
“This team outrebounded us by 25 rebounds a month ago. I think we got them by 18 today,” Calipari said before complaining about how Wenyen’s still going up for rebounds with one hand. (If you haven’t figured it out eight seasons in, he really hates when his players do that.)
Bam led the way with 15 rebounds, followed by Derek Willis with nine (!), Isaiah Briscoe with eight, and Dominique Hawkins with six. Heck, even Malik Monk had four. What did Monk attribute Bam’s big day on the boards to?
“Cal’s been making us run when he doesn’t rebound,” Monk said. “We don’t like running.”
Dominique Hawkins brought the hustle
Monk was other-worldly, Bam was crucial, but to me, Dominique Hawkins was a huge reason Kentucky was able to win today. Mychal Mulder actually started in place of De’Aaron Fox, but Hawkins quickly came in and took control, dishing four assists to only one turnover. He played a team-high 37 minutes and never took a second off. Dom may not be an NBA lottery pick, but right now, he’s playing with more heart than anyone on the team and thankfully, his toughness was contagious this afternoon.
“I thought Dom was outstanding again,” Cal said. “We just got to get a team full of guys really locked into what we’re doing.”
Was this “the moment” we’ve been waiting for?
I was thinking about this last night, and each of Calipari’s teams (2012-13 group withstanding) has had a “moment” for fans to rally around: 2010 – John Wall dance; 2011 – Jorts bouncing the ball off Jared Sullinger’s chest; 2012 – everything; 2014 – Aaron Harrison’s great story; 2015 – all of it; 2016 – Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray’s bow and arrow. So far, I’ve been really worried this group hasn’t had that. Was Calipari embracing Monk in the second half a good start?
I hope so.
Will Fox be back on Tuesday?
Kentucky found a way to win without him, but will De’Aaron play on Tuesday? Calipari said he didn’t know, and that had Fox played today, he would have been at about 70%.
“If he had played he would have been 70 percent. So what I’m saying is, I knew that. I really wanted us to play the game without him. For us and for him. And now it’s like, okay, but we made runs in the middle of the game with Isaiah on the bench. He wasn’t in. And so that’s good for this team to know, you could have foul trouble, you could have an injury, something could happen, you can still win if you’re playing the right way.”
Even when Fox is 100%, Calipari warned him that he better being the hustle.
“But I like the fact that we fought and I said, and for De’Aaron Fox, hey, man, when you come back, you better be to the level of these guys fighting. That’s where you need to be.”
For now, puff your chest out a bit and go celebrate
Because Kentucky just won a really tough and important game without their star point guard, and for the first time in a long time, they looked like a group that could make a run in March. Maybe even April if Monk stays hot.