INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky fans will remember the De’Aaron Fox dunks and the Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo blocks at the end of a thrilling, 65-62 win over Wichita State in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament on Sunday. But there was a bizarre stretch in the first half that might serve the Wildcats well in the weekend ahead.
Kentucky trailed 6-4 at the first media timeout without 14:29 to go before intermission when, out of the huddle, coach John Calipari went with a series of odd lineups. First Fox with backups Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder, Wenyen Gabriel and Isaac Humphries. Then Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis with Hawkins, Mulder and Humphries.
And a funny thing happened: The Wildcats surged ahead and stayed ahead in the nearly 10 minutes of second-string basketball.
“Our job as the bench is to come in and continue with the energy of the starters. The fact that we were able to do that means a lot,” Humphries said. “We need to continue the energy and not be a downer for the team. It felt good to be able to go out there and stay in the game and be productive.”
Mulder delivered a huge block at the rim. Gabriel and Humphries, who had all but disappeared lately, snared two rebounds apiece in short order. Then, when Briscoe, Mulder and Hawkins swished successive 3-pointers, Kentucky found itself with an improbable 17-11 lead. Thanks to clean basketball and a conservative whistle, the backups played one stretch of nearly six uninterrupted minutes.
By the time freshman stars Fox, Monk and Adebayo — who waited at the scorer’s table for what seemed like an eternity — finally checked back in with 5:55 to go in the half, they had combined for just 21 minutes. Hawkins, Mulder and Humphries had combined for 29 at that point.
“I’m not going to lie. My body was not used to that,” Humphries said. “I hadn’t done that for a while, so I was a little winded by the end there. But it’s just about fighting through it, like this is it, this is the end game, and if we don’t win this, we’re out. I just tried to fight through that fatigue and push through and do what I could.”
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He averaged just 4.1 minutes and less than a rebound over the previous nine games, while Mulder had played only 4minutes in Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament opener two days earlier. If the Wildcats are to prolong this postseason run for another weekend, all the way to the Final Four in Phoenix, they’ll need something from the bench.
Hawkins had been the only reliable sub recently, and he delivered again Sunday with all seven of his points — on 3-of-3 shooting — in that strange first-half stretch with most of the starters on the bench. Then came his usual lockdown defense in the second half.
“Dom just played outstanding,” Calipari said. “Mychal Mulder made a huge three. I mean, it’s nice that we’ve got veterans like Isaiah and those seniors playing.”
Because the NCA Tournament is weird sometimes, and you never know when you might find yourself with a lineup full of reserves trying to hang tough against elite competition in a win-or-go-home situation. Kentucky has to feel better about its depth after Sunday.
“It’s important, man,” Mulder said. “These guys need to get a break once in a while. They do so much for our team, the starters, and we’ve gotta give them a break and have them trust that we can keep the momentum going.”