By John Clay | Lexington Herald Leader
Three take-aways from Kentucky’s nail-biter of a 65-62 win over Wichita State in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Sunday in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
1. The two things that won the game for Kentucky
You would say Bam Adebayo’s block of Landry Shamet’s attempted three-pointer at game’s end. Or Malik Monk’s block on Markis McDuffie’s three-pointer on the previous possession. Or Monk’s three-pointer with 2:08 left that gave UK a 61-56 lead. Or even De’Aaron Fox’s jam off a lightning quick drive that made it 63-59 Cats with 1:25 left.
You wouldn’t be wrong on any of those things.
Truthfully, however, Kentucky was able to punch its Sweet 16 ticket by doing two things: Rebounding the basketball and not turning over the basketball.
Wichita State came into Saturday outrebounding opponents by nine per game. The Shockers whipped Dayton 48-29 on the glass in Gregg Marshall team’s 64-58 win over Dayton in Friday night’s first round game. But Kentucky fought to a 28-28 draw on the boards in the first half and was only outrebounded by two in the second half.
“That was big,” said Fox.
Adebayo delivered his second straight double-double. After scoring 15 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in Friday’s 79-70 win over Northern Kentucky, Adebayo had 13 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday. Derek Willis claimed eight rebounds. Isaiah Briscoe came up with four more.
In fact, Kentucky’s offensive rebound percentage of 35.0 (10 on 34 chances) was better than Wichita State’s 29.4 (14 on 40 chances).
Plus, in a game where every possession was priceless, Kentucky turned the ball over just seven times to Wichita State’s 11 turnovers. After turning it over six times on Friday, Fox turned it over just twice in 31 minutes on Sunday. UK had 11 assists to go with those seven errors. That’s the Cats’ best assist/turnover ratio of the post-season, including the SEC Tournament.
One of the game’s biggest (overlooked) plays came with just over four minutes remaining when Wichita State’s Zach Brown, who turned it over four times, made a careless pass out front. Fox made the steal and slammed it home at the other end for a 58-51 Kentucky lead with 4:09 remaining.
2. A smart John Calipari coaching move
After Malik Monk made two free throws with 10.6 seconds left, Kentucky coach John Calipari subbed in Dominique Hawkins for Derek Willis leaving the Cats with four guards (Hawkins, Monk, Fox and Briscoe) to go with Adebayo.
The strategy worked as Fox took Wichita State’s Shamet coming up the floor. The freshman scored 20 points to lead the Shockers. He had just made a three-pointer with 55 seconds left to pull Wichita State within 63-62. It stood to reason he would take the last shot. But Fox was screened, leaving Shamet free for a second.
Only to be picked up by the quick Hawkins, who did a terrific job of staying in front of Shamet. When Wichita State tried to screen again, Adebayo didn’t go with the screener but double-teamed Shamet along with Hawkins. As the clock ticked down, Shamet was forced to take a highly-contested shot that Adebayo immediately blocked.
“He pump faked, and I knew he had to shoot it so I just went up and tried to block it,” said Adebayo.
But give Hawkins credit for making things difficult for Shamet before Adebayo arrived.
And credit Calipari for making the defensive substitution.
3. Kentucky takes a 13-game winning streak to the Sweet 16
Wichita State came into Sunday with 16-game winning streak, the nation’s longest. Now Kentucky owns that distinction thanks to 13 consecutive victories.
The Cats have not lost since that 22-blowout (88-66) defeat at Florida on Feb. 4. Since then, the Cats have won five games by double digits, eight by single digits. They beat LSU by seven, Alabama by nine in Tuscaloosa, Georgia by five in Athens, Vanderbilt by six, Texas A&M by eight in College Station, Alabama by five in the SEC Tournament and Northern Kentucky by nine in the NCAAs.
Learning how to win those close games paid off handsomely in Sunday’s victory. Though Wichita State was known to like a slower, more physical style of play, the Shockers had been regularly beating teams by double digits during its streak. It’s six-point win over Dayton on Friday was against the norm of late for Marshall’s club.
Sunday, however, Kentucky made the plays down the stretch. The game was tied at 41 when Fox hit two free throws and Willis scored off a nifty Monk assist to put the Cats up 45-41. When Wichita State cut the lead to 45-44, Willis drained a three to push the lead back to four. Then Adebayo scored on a rebound for a 50-44 lead.
And when the Shockers’ Shamet made three free throws to bring Wichita State to within 58-56, Monk hit his big shot, just the second three-pointer he made the entire afternoon.