Sunday, December 18, 2016

N. Carolina 100 - 103 Kentucky (Las Vegas, Nev.) (No. 2,215)

Where to begin?  Where to begin?

OK, let's start with some history.  Since Rupp's Runts in 1966, here is a complete list of all the times Kentucky has beaten North Carolina in the regular season.

1.  On December 8, 1969, Kentucky beat UNC 94-87 in Charlotte, thanks in large part to 41 points from Dan Issel.  That Kentucky team finished the regular season ranked number 1 in the nation, and lost in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament to Jacksonville.

2.  On December 9, 1974, Kentucky beat UNC 90-78 in Louisville, thanks in large part to 35 points by Jimmy Dan Conner (number one on the all-time Kentucky name team).  That team went all the finals of the 1975 NCAA Tournament.

3.  On December 2, 2000, Kentucky beat UNC 93-76 in Chapel Hill.  That team ended up being the number-2 seed in the East, and went to the Sweet 16 before being upset by Southern Cal.

4.  On December 8, 2001, Kentucky beat UNC 79-59 in Lexington.  That team became famous as "Team Turmoil," and it remained inconsistent all year.  Ken Pom thinks they were the 10th-best team in the country, and they lost to eventual national champions Maryland in the Sweet 16.

5.  On December 7, 2002, Kentucky beat UNC 98-81 in Chapel Hill.  That team went 32-4, and Ken Pom thinks they were the best in the country.  After winning 26 games in a row, they were beaten in the Regional Final by Dewayne Wade and whatever team he played for.

6.  On January 3, 2004, Kentucky beat UNC 61-56 in Chapel Hill.  That team went 27-4 before being upset by Alabama-Birmingham in the second round of the NCAA's.  Ken Pom thinks they were the 10th best team in the country that year.

7.  On December 5, 2009, Kentucky beat UNC 68-66 in Lexington.  That team went 35-3, and reached the regional final before losing to West Virginia.  Ken Pom thinks they were the fourth-best team in the country.

8.  On December 3, 2011, Kentucky beat UNC 73-72 in Lexington.  That team won the 2012 national championship.

9.  On December 13, 2014, Kentucky beat UNC 84-70 in Lexington.  That team went 38-1 and reached the Final Four before losing to Wisconsin.  Ken Pom thinks they were the best team in the country.

10.  And yesterday, Kentucky beat UNC 103-100 in Las Vegas, in one of the greatest regular-season games I've ever seen.

The point is this:  Kentucky doesn't beat UNC in the regular season very often -- and when the Wildcats do, it usually means something.  Four of the 10 wins above took place between the 2000-01 and 2003-04 seasons -- times when UNC was struggling through the post-Dean era.  Five of the other wins belong to the UK teams of 1970, 1975, 2010, 2012, and 2015 -- five of the best teams Kentucky has ever had.  Now we have a sixth win against a full-strength UNC team, which augers well for the Cats.

But it would be wrong to view this game only in the context of March.  These nationally-televised games against big-name schools in December are part of the lifeblood of UK's program.  We don't just play them for seeding in the tournament -- we play them because Kentucky's fans, coaches, and players always want to see how they stack up against the best in the country.  Sometimes the results are disappointing -- like the loss to UCLA a few weeks ago.  On the other hand, they are sometimes thrilling.

And Kentucky fans needed some thrills.  It's mostly been close-but-no-cigar for the Cats since they lost to Wisconsin at the end of the 2015 season.  Last year, they appeared to be en route to huge road wins at Kansas and Texas A & M -- but let both those games get away in overtime.  They won the SEC Tournament in overtime against Texas A & M -- but were slapped with a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament later that day.  In the second round of the tournament, they lost to Indiana 73-67 on a day where Jamal Murray made only 1 of 9 three-pointers.  And two Saturday's ago, their big coming-out party was spoiled by UCLA, who came to Rupp Arena and out-ran the Cats 99-92.

Still, Ken Pom believed in the Cats -- he thought they would win 83-82 yesterday -- so I didn't really know what to expect when I tuned in to the second half of the CBS double-header from Las Vegas.  (UCLA drilled Ohio State 86-73 in the first game, and the undefeated Bruins may actually be the best team in the country.)

Actually, I did know a few things to expect.  As we've written about before, Kentucky and UNC are the yin and yang of college basketball.  Kentucky's program was built by Adolph Rupp, and it's all about heart and emotion.  UNC's program was built by Dean Smith, and it's all about working as a team and fitting into a system.  So I knew that we would rely on emotion and intensity, while they would count on patience and skill.

And that's pretty much what happened.  No one ever understood better than Dean Smith the importance of being fresh at the end of a basketball game.  As a result, the Tar Heels have a tendency to ease into games.  Sometimes this hurts them -- a few weeks ago they went to Indiana and fell behind 28-11 before they woke up.  They were the better team the rest of the way, but could never quite catch the Hoosiers and lost by nine.  But yesterday, the Heels were paying attention from the get-go, and the game got off to a blazing start.  After just more than 8 minutes, the Cats led 21-19.

At this point, Kentucky felt that they had taken the measure of the Tar Heels, and the Wildcats attacked, going on a 15-7 run that put them up 36-26 after a thunderous dunk by Bam Adebayo.  The Kentucky fans in "Lex Vegas" were going nuts -- but I was noticing that there were still more than 8 minutes left in the first half.  And sure enough, Carolina kept chipping away at Kentucky's lead.  The Heels were scoring with ease, much as UCLA had done two weeks ago.  Most of Kentucky's players, on the other hand, were struggling to score.  The Cats were staying in the game mainly due to spectacular play from Malik Monk, the redoubtable freshman from Bentonville, Arkansas.

I wasn't all that excited when I heard that UK had gotten Monk, because I remembered our experience with Archie Goodwin, another tweener from Arkansas who was supposed to have an amazing game.  Goodwin ended up shooting 44 percent from the field, 26.6 percent from three-point range, and 63.7 percent from the line.  Kentucky ended up going to the NIT.  Goodwin left, and Kentucky responded with back-to-back trips to the Final Four.

Monk also makes me nervous because he has a tendency to take running jump shots -- and step-back shots.  After years of watching college basketball, I have come to realize that almost no college players can make these shots on a reliable basis.  One of the most common plays in college basketball is to watch someone beat his man off the dribble, pull up -- and miss the shot.  Another common play is to watch someone drive into the lane, pull up -- and miss the shot.  In college ball, your made jump shots almost always come when a player is standing still, catches the ball, and goes up for the shot.  So every time Monk took a running jump shot, I assumed he was going to miss.  But they kept going in.  Over and over.  He had 27 points at the half, which is unheard of.  And the Cats led 56-51.  It was an amazing 20 minutes of basketball -- but it was only 20 minutes.

The breakneck pace continued in the second half.  Calipari usually prefers to control the tempo when he's in the lead.  His 2015 team -- which was almost always in the lead -- ranked 271st in the nation in tempo.  But controlling the tempo can be dangerous when your defense isn't trustworthy.  In the finals of the 2012 SEC Tournament, Anthony Davis suffered his second -- and final -- college loss when UK went ice-cold down the stretch, and Vanderbilt came back for the upset.  Something very similar happened in the 2015 Final Four, where UK led Wisconsin late, but used up one long possession after another without scoring, while the Badgers came from behind to win.

To me, it seemed like UK was at risk for a similar outcome yesterday.  For whatever reason, the Cats simply could not stop UNC from scoring.  (Calipari said after the game that the Heels and UCLA had both focused their offense on a few specific Wildcats, and had attacked those players to score.  He seems to think that by working with those players -- I don't know who they are -- he can avoid the type of defense we saw yesterday.)  Since UK couldn't stop UNC, the Wildcats' only hope was to keep outscoring them.  As for the Heels, they always believe that they can outscore their opponents down the stretch, so they certainly weren't going to slow things down.  And so the game continued at a torrid pace:

Kentucky led 61-55 with 18:11 left.
Kentucky led 71-65 with 13:19 left.

Monk kept carrying the Cats.  At one point UNC cut UK's lead to 74-72, but Monk responded with a one-man 7-2 run to put UK up 81-74 with 9:35 left.  With only 4:54 to go, UK led 93-86, and UNC's center Kennedy Meeks had fouled out.  The Heels had the ball, and the Cats called time.

And at this point, I did some math.  I figured that it wasn't realistic to expect UNC to score more than 16 points in the last five minutes of the game.  Sixteen points in five minutes is a lot of points -- it would be like scoring 64 points in a half.  So I figured UNC would end up with no more than 102 points -- and if UK could score 10 more points, they would win the game.  But where would those ten points come from?  Da'Aaron Fox was having a big game -- he would finish with 24 points.  And Adebayo had 13 points -- and four fouls.  Other than those two, it would be up to Monk, who already had 39 points and who was being chased all over the floor by some of the best players in college basketball.  So I just hoped they would keep feeding Monk.  

Here's what happened next:

With 4:22 left, UNC hit a difficult jumper to make it 93-88.
With 4:03 left, Fox missed a jumper.
With 3:52 left, Joel Berry (who had a tremendous game) hit a three pointer to make it 93-91.

So it was back to Monk.  The Cats gave him the ball, and he dribbled into the lane, easing a shot over the taller Heels to put UK up 95-91 with 3:23 left.  41 points -- six more than the all-time record for a Kentucky freshman.

But soon thereafter Adebayo was called for his fifth foul, and Kentucky's inside offense (and much of its interior defense) was gone.  Berry made two free throws, and UK led 95-93.  Kentucky went back to Monk, but his prayer from the corner (over two men) didn't go down, and Isaac Humphries was called for a foul on the rebound.  The free throws meant that the game was tied at 95 with 2:51, and the folks in Vegas were in an uproar.

Kentucky couldn't get off a shot, and UNC missed a three-pointer at the other end.  So it was still tied at 95 when Humphries grabbed the rebound -- and suddenly the Cats were off to the races.  It was a two-on-one break with Monk dribbling and Wenyen Gabriel running alongside him.  The UNC defender was clearly focused on Monk -- and I wanted Monk to drive and draw the foul.  But Monk went for the alley-oop lob pass to Gabriel.  It was a fine pass, but Gabriel doesn't have the hands to make that play in that situation.  He fumbled the ball out of bounds, and we were still tied at 95 with 1:46 left.  The Heels called time.

That was our chance, I thought.  If Monk had scored there -- as he should have -- we would have been in the lead.  But our team got too exuberant -- too excited about the moment -- and the chance had gotten away.  Now the System would beat us.  And so it appeared, as Justin Jackson (who had 34 points in this game) nailed a three-pointer to put UNC up 98-95 with 1:35 left.  On CBS they let us know that this was Carolina's first lead since early in the second half.  Thanks, CBS!

But in some ways, the three-point deficit clarified everything for Kentucky.  Trying to hold the lead, they had only scored two points in the last three and one-half minutes.  Down three, they had no choice but to give the ball to Monk and hope for the best.  And so they did -- and from the left wing he BURIED a three-pointer over two men.  Forty-four points.  All tied at 98 with 1:20 left.

UNC came back, and Berry finally missed.  But with Adebayo on the bench, Isaiah Hicks corralled a huge rebound for the Heels, and this time they ran a glorious backdoor play where Justin Jackson beat Isaiah Briscoe for a layup.  Worse yet, Briscoe was called for a foul.  Up 100-98 with 44 seconds left, and Jackson going to the line, the Heel folks started to celebrate.  You could see the look of joy and relief on the UNC faces.  It had been a longer and tougher game than they expected -- and that guy Monk had been on fire.  But the System had come through, as it usually does.

On the other hand, the game wasn't over yet.  Jackson is a great free throw shooter, but this time he missed.  Still Carolina got the rebound, and had a great chance to put the game away.  For once, however, the UK defense held, as Berry missed a jumper -- and Fox grabbed the rebound.  And now you knew things were going to happen very fast.  You knew Fox would race up the court at top speed, that Monk would get the ball on the left wing, and that he would have to decide whether to drive for two (and the tie) or go for three (and the lead).

Calipari said after the game that he wanted Monk to drive, and that is of course the percentage play.  Take the layup and they may foul you anyway, and you get three the old-fashioned way.  And the UNC player guarding Monk -- who knows that's the percentage play, because UNC players know stuff like that -- hesitated for just a moment, thinking that Monk might drive.  And in that moment, Monk let go his 28th and final shot of the day, and I think everyone in Vegas, and everyone watching on television, knew that it was going in.   His eighth three-pointer of the game.  Forty-seven points.  And the Cats led 101-100 with 19 seconds left.

Now almost everyone calls time when they trail by one point with 19 seconds left.  But the Heels don't call time, because the System teaches that the advantage is with the better-coached team, especially if that team has the ball.  After all, the Heels know what they're doing, and the defense has to figure out how to stop them.  So you don't call time to set up a play -- such as getting the ball to a red-hot Justin Jackson.  You go down and attack.  And with six seconds left the shot was not for Jackson or Berry -- it was for Isaiah Hicks, a 6' 9" senior who contributed 15 very productive minutes.  But he could not make the jump shot -- and the rebound went to Gabriel, who got the ball to Fox, who was fouled by Berry with 1.9 seconds to go.

After a UNC timeout, Fox went to the line, intending to make the first one and miss the second one, in the hopes that 1.9 seconds would expire before UNC could do anything more than a desperate heave.  He made the first one -- and then his attempt to miss the second bounded off the backboard and straight into the basket.  And then we had about five minutes of UNC trying to pull off a 1972 Munich type play:

They threw the ball into half court to someone who clearly walked before calling time with 0.6 seconds left.  UNC was given time.

Then the Heels threw the ball in -- and Fox stole it, but was called for some type of turnover.

And so the Heels had one more chance -- and now there were 0.7 seconds left.  But a three-point effort by Kenny Williams missed, and the game was finally over, and Kentucky had won:  103 to 100.  In all my years of being a Kentucky fan, I can only remember one other game where the Cats gave up 100 points and won -- a 101-100 win over Alabama in the 1979 SEC Tournament.

There's not a whole lot more to say.  UNC looked really, really good to me, and I desperately hope that someone else beats them in the NCAA's so that we don't have to play them again.  On the other hand, UK plainly has room for improvement -- the front line of Gabriel, Adebayo, Humphries, and Derek Willis will likely get better as the season moves on.

As for Malik Monk, for the rest of his career, this game will be seen as a constant reminder of what he can do:  10-16 on two-point shots, 8-12 on three-point shots, 3-5 from the line -- 47 points.  Let's see if we can put that in some perspective.

I've been watching Kentucky since the 1974-75 season.  In all those years, only one player has scored more than 47 points in a game.  That was in 2009, when Jodie Meeks went for 54 against Tennessee in Knoxville.  Meeks was an amazing shooter, and that was a spectacular performance.  But I really believe that Monk's game yesterday is the best regular-season performance I've ever seen by a Kentucky player:

1.  Monk was going up against one of the best teams in college basketball -- a team that had tremendous athletes and who ran multiple defenders at him the whole game.

2.  Monk was the only force keeping Kentucky in the game -- there were key stretches where he was the Kentucky offense.

3.  Every one of Monk's points were critical to Kentucky's victory.

4.  Monk hit two three-pointers in the last 90 seconds of the game.  One of those three-pointers tied the game, and the other put UK in the lead.  They were both do-or-die shots with the game on the line.

I can't think of another combination of so many points, against such a great opponent, and so many clutch shots, in a regular season game.

Can he keep it up?  Of course not -- he's not going to score 47 points every night.  But I've never seen Calipari give so much freedom to a single offensive player since he's been at Kentucky -- not even John Wall.  Calipari must think there's something very, very special about Monk, and from what I saw yesterday, he may be right. 


  1. Excellent, excellent report! My favorite part was these two sentences, which read exactly how watching the game felt:

    Kentucky led 61-55 with 18:11 left.
    Kentucky led 71-65 with 13:19 left.

  2. I listened to Tom Leach most of this game on my to and from the Hanson Walmart in a cold, torrential rain that totally felt like it was going to turn into a paralyzing overnight ice storm. Thankfully, before the temperature dropped below freezing, most of the precipitation had moved out of Hopkins County, and we woke to only a glaze. But, at the end of the first half, it looked like it was going to be really, really bad, and Walmart had turned into an incompatible mix of Christmas shoppers who merrily didn't care about the UK game and were hoping to have the store to themselves and survivalists stocking up on milk, diapers, medicines, kerosene, etc., and maybe before the second half really got rolling. I played both sides of this line, picking up some Christmas-present calendars for the wife's youth-group colleagues and some extra gallon jugs of water for the whole fam in case we got hit hard.

    Anyway, in the middle of frigid and just absolutely pouring, pouring, pouring rain, there transpired quite a brouhaha in the parking lot immediately in front of the grocery-side doors. I don't know what exactly happened, but it involved ...

    -- some hot-and-bothered young dude who was pulling his vehicle to the front doors to pick up a woman with bags and probably got himself embarrassed when he miscalculated his window and wedged his vehicle across both the lanes so that he was blocking all passage in front of the doors;

    -- three or four honking vehicles who had people waiting in the rain for them, too, and

    -- several individuals trying to make a dash for it from the store back out to their vehicles in the lot.

    The young guy ultimately got out of his vehicle, slammed his door and loosed a barrage of big-ticket obscenities. The whole scene bummed the yuletide chill for the no-hurry folks waiting out the weather amid the Christmas carols playing overhead in the narthex, and there were a lot of tsk-tsk-tsk murmurs about "people these days" and being "too ignorant to know any other way to talk" and somebody getting "a lump of coal in his stocking."

  3. By the time I got home, Tom Leach was tense, and I hustled in and fired up the TV set. The holiday hubbub of craft- and snack-making was suspended, and my wife, daughter and I settled in for the end of what in our house became the first game of the UK season. With third grade and work and moms and elections and Dolphins and 1970 and everything, none of us in our house had really dialed in to UK yet. We'd seen a few minutes of action here and there, but we hadn't yet really put in the early-season, which-one's-Monk-and-which-one's-Fox? work that the John Calipari era of UK basketball demands. The John Calipari era is, for me, the most fun era of UK basketball ever, so this is a small price to pay--but you do have to pay it to have all of the fun.

  4. And now, after this super win over UNC, we're paid in full for the whole season.

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