CRAWFORD | Fantastic Fox drives Kentucky past Alabama into SEC f - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Fantastic Fox drives Kentucky past Alabama into SEC final, but are 'Cats NCAA ready?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) -- At some point, struggling to put away teams it should be handling a little more forcefully may become a point of much discussion around this University of Kentucky basketball team, which beat Alabama 79-74 in the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday.

But not at the SEC Tournament.

The Wildcats are now 41-2 in the SEC semis, which means winning Saturday hardly qualifies as news. It’s what Kentucky does. In this case, it surged and slugged with an offensively challenged Alabama team until the closing minutes, then spread the court and let fantastic freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox single-handedly destroy one of the nation’s better defenses.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox scored a career-high 28 points, and returned to pre-injury form of a month ago after committing five first-half turnovers. He’s a special player.

It went like this. Up 62-61, Calipari spread the court, and sent Fox to work. He drove for a mid-range jumper and was fouled, and made a free throw. On Georgia’s next trip down, he stole the entry pass in the lane, was fouled on his layup attempt and made one of two again.

Up 64-62, Kentucky inbounded to him well in the backcourt on its next possession. He retrieved it, dribbled it across the timeline and gathered speed. He split through Corban Collins and Riley Norris working off a ball screen, then blew by Braxton Key and finished a layup.

When that layup fell, Fox slapped the padding on the basket standard behind him, and the game was for all intents and purposes over. It was more emotion than you usually see from Fox, and it was a thing of beauty for his coach.

“Sometimes we call a play down the stretch and if it works, we keep going to it,” Fox said. “I just kept making plays and they kept putting the ball in my hands. When I know Coach is trusting me and my teammates are trusting me, keep attacking, doing what you're doing. All I got to do is just make the play.”

Sure. Simple. Easy. The thing is Fox can make it look easy. He changed shoes at one point in the first half, because he was slipping, but once he focused on not turning the ball over, the game went downhill for Kentucky, though again, it wasn’t as easy as the 10-point pointspread predicted.

Malik Monk, who had gone 3-for-17 from the field his previous two games, made three jumpers in the first seven minutes against Alabama to get himself going.

Calipari credited Monk with coming to Bridgestone Arena at 7:30 in the morning, with teammate Wenyen Gabriel and an assistant coach, to work on his jump shot.

“He came early. He did it,” Calipari said. “Second thing that happened is I had (Monk) and Isaiah (Briscoe) out (in the first half) and I'm going to put them back in, but the team on the floor was on a run and they say to me, ‘Let them stay in.’ That's where this is starting to go.”

The guys on the court for that run were instrumental in the win. Alabama scored its first seven points on layups and jumped out to a 17-7 lead. When Gabriel and Dominique Hawkins came into the game, it marked the beginning of five minutes in which the Crimson Tide made only one basket -- a three-pointer.

Hawkins was, again, instrumental throughout. By the midway point of the second half, Kentucky had opened a nine-point lead and looked ready to land a knockout against an Alabama team playing its third game in three days.

But knockout punches have eluded the Wildcats. They couldn’t get stops against a team ranked No. 161 in the nation in offensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy coming in. The reason?

Alabama’s offensive strategy was simple. Attack Monk.

And it worked. While Monk broke out of his offensive slump, scoring 20 points in the game, the Wildcats were outscored by eight in the 35 minutes he was on the court. Now, that plus-minus stat can be misleading. Monk’s offensive contribution was considerable. But in the five minutes Monk was off the court, Kentucky outscored Alabama 15-2. And that’s fairly significant.

If better teams take the same approach, Monk has some work to do on the defensive end.

Hawkins and Gabriel, meanwhile, did the dirty work.

Calipari’s main reason to smile after this game is that he sees the pieces moving in the direction he wants them.

“The team is starting to come together,” he said. “. . . We are a team that's trying to figure some stuff out. We're pressing some, we're doing some different kind of trapping. We're still not like there yet, but we're moving where I want us to go. We rebooted . . . probably three weeks ago and we've been tweaking and trying and, you know, the best thing I can tell you, I have really good players. They're just really young. So young. They're like the youngest team in the country. And so I’ve got to accept that sometimes, you know.”

After facing a pair of very good defensive teams, Kentucky will get an opponent with a style more to its liking in the SEC Tournament finale on Sunday at 1. Arkansas doesn’t mind to run. The Razorbacks are led by a couple of 6-3 guards, Jaylen Barford and Dusty Hannah, and a 6-10 shot-blocker in Moses Kingsley. They’re 25-8 after beating Vanderbilt 76-62 in Saturday’s second SEC semifinal.

Kentucky has won 10 straight games. The average record of the Wildcats’ opponents in those 10 wins is 17-10. Their average margin of victory is 9.6 points.

It’s an impressive result, but not a particularly impressive stretch. Still, Calipari needed that kind of stretch, to get a better feel for his team, and to move some pieces around the chessboard to see how they’d respond.

How much Kentucky has changed, against elite competition, we won’t know until it faces elite competition again. By every metric, Kentucky has gone 28-5 against a Top 25 schedule. It has won ten in a row. It should be as ready as any team. Yet the early deficits in games, the too-close-for-comfort margins, leave lingering questions. Arkansas gives Kentucky one more chance to make an emphatic statement before the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky beat Arkansas 97-71 in Little Rock on Jan. 7, in perhaps its most impressive SEC win of the season.

“Different game, different venue, different time,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “It’s for the championship of the SEC Tournament. So, we’re looking forward to the opportunity. I’m sure they are as well.”

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