MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Who to ask about the show Kentucky put on Friday night against UCLA and what it all meant? Here comes De’Aaron Fox.
Pffffft.There goes De’Aaron Fox. Everywhere he went Friday night, he left a vapor trail, especially through the Bruins’ defense on his way to 39 points, which is the most a freshman ever, ever, ever scored in an NCAA tournament game. He was the guard who led Kentucky.
No, make that the guard who drove Kentucky, on the night the Wildcats showed how good they can be when inspired and hungry and maybe a tad ticked off.
“We weren’t going to lose to this team twice in a row,” Fox said afterward. So we noticed. Lonzo Who?
The most impressive feature in the Wildcats’ 86-75 win over UCLA was easy to see, Fox zipping here, zapping there, the Bruins waving at him as he blazed by. Not even the UCLA mascot in an Elvis suit could stop him. Can any college player in America stay in front of Fox? Anyone at all? “Not that I know of,” teammate Bam Adebayo was saying. “Full speed, I don’t see it.”
But there was something more to Friday than just the sizzle of a glamorous duel to light up the NCAA Tournament sky. More important is what it said about Kentucky, as the road narrows on the way to the Final Four.That the Wildcats are good, and laden with future NBA draft picks is a given. But look what happens when they’re truly motivated. Between the urgency of a Sweet 16 and the memory of losing to UCLA in Rupp Arena December, they sensed a mission to accomplish Friday night and a statement to make. Fox as much as anyone, with the college basketball universe so atwitter about the Bruins’ Lonzo Ball.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder,” he said.
“I think he was motivated to win because they beat us the first time, outfought us the first time,” backcourt mate Malik Monk said. “He just did not want to lose, and we did not want to lose, either, so he kept scoring, and we kept giving him the ball.”
Maybe there was no drama at the end—that was left to Florida and Wisconsin—but the game still answered its lavish buildup. There were 13 lead changes in the first half. Both teams combined for 27 points before the first TV timeout in the second half – meaning four minutes and change. In the first 10 minutes of the second half, Monk had 13 points, on his way to 21. Meanwhile, UCLA shot 75 percent in those 10 minutes but went from trailing by three points to trailing by seven. That’s how good Kentucky was. That’s what this moment brought from the Wildcats.
“From the start, I knew we would have a talented team, but as the season goes along, you have to start putting different things in place. I think we’ve gotten to that,” said senior Derek Willis. “A lot of people here know their futures depend on how far we go in this tournament. We’ve put too much effort in. Everyone in here individually has been through something with this program. I don’t mean that negative, you just get asked a lot to be here. All this work, we want it to pay off. We don’t want it to end short.”
Friday was a fine night to show their purpose. See the familiar face sitting over there on the front row at midcourt? Magic Johnson. Fox noticed but was not paralyzed by awe.
“We’ve had celebrities at games. I mean, playing on this stage, there’s going to be a lot of people there,” he said. “We’re trying to put on a show, but we’re trying to win a game at the same time.”
He managed to do both. So, Kentucky joined South Carolina and Florida in an Elite Eight that is 37.5 percent SEC. This is starting to sound like football. Next for the Wildcats is North Carolina on Sunday. Another day, another member of college basketball’s royal family to face. And should they win that one, they might get Kansas in the Final Four. UCLA-North Carolina-Kansas; what a journey through the bluebloods that would be.
But, then, Kentucky always finds a way to get the headlines. Old Wildcat Devin Booker scored 70 points for the Phoenix Suns Friday night against Boston.
“He showed up our team,” John Calipari said. “They’re going to be talking about Devin Booker all night now.”
Not hardly. Fox was special, and Friday’s team performance was significant for Kentucky. The Wildcats had more assists than the team that has led the nation in assists all season, held the Bruins 16 under their scoring average, and committed only six turnovers. That sounds like a team finding some maturity.
“They’re going to do stuff that you look at and shake our head. But my teams always do it because they’re always so young,” Calipari said. “But they’re getting better, and they know whose hands the ball was going to be in. I’ll sleep tonight because I’m getting old and I’m tired. But I’m excited that we’re still going this with this group of kids.”
Crunch time has come, and Kentucky seems ready. The memories of any regular season growing pains are a blur now, just like De’Aaron Fox.