BOZICH | Tougher than Wichita State, Kentucky now gets UCLA rematch
Wichita State prides itself on it toughness, but Kentucky out-toughed the Shockers while advancing to the NCAA Final Four Sunday.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (WDRB) – Wichita State was convinced it had tougher, stronger and more determined players than Kentucky. The Shockers were not shy about saying it either.
Wichita’s plan to upset the Wildcats Sunday was to start the game in Kentucky’s grill – and then remain there for 40 minutes.
“In our locker room we believed we were the better team,” Wichita coach Gregg Marshall said.
Time for a recount – or a check of the scoreboard at Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse Sunday afternoon.
Kentucky 65, Wichita State 62. Bump the Wildcats forward in your NCAA Tournament bracket into the Sweet Sixteen They get a rematch with UCLA Friday night in Memphis. North Carolina or Butler await the winner on Sunday. That's 24 national titles in one region.
Credit Kentucky with beating Wichita at Wichita's game -- toughness.
“Hard game to play,” UK coach John Calipari said. “They really grind it out.”
The Wildcats were tougher, stronger and more determined than the Shockers. They made one play more.
There were many plays to recognize. Most will pick the defensive play that Bam Adebayo and Dominique Hawkins combined to make to silence Wichita guard Landry Shamet in the final seconds.
Hawkins stayed in Shamet’s grill as the formidable Wichita guard tried to launch a game-tying three-pointer from the right wing– and then Abebayo arrived to swat the shot harmlessly to the court.
Adebayo had the savvy and quickness to abandon Wichita’s Conner Frankamp and then lunge forward to make the play.
“We were just playing defense,” Adebayo said. “He pump faked and I knew he had to shoot it so I just went up and tried to block it.”
But this wasn’t simply a Hawkins/Adebayo show. Kentucky showed as much collective toughness as the Wildcats have shown all season. They never allowed Wichita to lead by more than four points. They limited the Shockers to five points off turnovers. They squeezed 11 turnovers out of a Wichita team that is generally solid at taking care of the basketball.
There was Malik Monk blocking Markis McDuffie’s shot on Wichita’s next-to-last possession. Give Monk a double-check plus for making a chilling three-pointer in the final two minutes as well as two free throws for the Wildcats’s final two points. Monk finished with 14.
“We were playing straight up defense,” Monk said. “We knew they were going to shoot a three. Just play solid.”
“It’s great to have Malik back,” Calipari said. “Haven’t seen him for awhile.”
There was De’Aaron Fox, who also scored 14, making plays that few other guards in college basketball can make. When Marshall tried to confuse Kentucky by switching to a 1-3-1 zone defense in the final two minutes, Fox twisted, wiggled and then roared away from his defender before soaring for a dazzling left-handed dunk.
“When I saw there was nobody there and I had a clear lane, I just took it,” Fox said.
Not only was Fox unrelenting, he was more careful with the basketball, making only a pair of turnovers after committing six against Northern Kentucky Friday night.
I don’t want to forget Derek Willis, although it seems as if Willis has labored through anonymity for most of his four years.
Never forget this. Willis led Kentucky with 33 minutes, playing the entire second half. Once, Willis raised his right fist in the air, a signal to the bench that he needed to leave the game.
Didn’t happen. Calipari let Willis rest as Wichita State shot free throws. He kept Willis in the game. You can imagine what Willis did on Kentucky’s next possession. He made a crisp three-point shot from the left corner to push Kentucky’s lead to 48-44.
Credit Willis with nine points, eight rebounds, three steals and not a single turnover.
“Think of that,” Calipari said. “Three steals. Derek Willis.”
Now Kentucky travels to Memphis to play UCLA or Cincinnati in the semifinals of the South Regional on Friday night. It will be Calipari’s first game at the FedEx Forum since he departed Memphis to coach in Lexington in 2009.
“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,” Calipari said. “So proud of them.”
If the Wildcats play with the same grit they displayed Sunday in Indianapolis, it won’t matter if the game is played on the moon.
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