LAS VEGAS – Good luck topping this one before March. Sixth-ranked Kentucky basketball and seventh-ranked North Carolina staged an instant classic Saturday, which the Wildcats won 103-100 thanks to 47 points and the clinching 3-pointer by freshman Malik Monk.
Monk and De’Aaron Fox combined for 71 points to cancel out Tar Heels stars Joel Berry and Justin Jackson’s 57. Afterwards, both coaches called it a great college basketball game. Here’s the other important stuff from UK’s John Calipari:
- “North Carolina is unbelievable. If you watched that game, if you never liked basketball, you’re going to start liking basketball,” Calipari said. “Like, ‘Wow, if that’s what it is, I’m going to watch that.’ ” Kentucky shot 54.1 percent, UNC hit 53 percent. The Cats made 10 of 18 threes, the Heels 9 of 17. “Two teams that played fast and scored quickly and opened the court up, let those kids do their thing.”
- We’ll get to Monk’s heroics, but Kentucky winning the battle of the boards 39-35 was also huge – and a surprise. The Cats came in as a bad defensive rebounding team, while the Heels were No. 1 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. “We outrebounded them. I can’t believe it. Never thought it would happen,” Calipari said.
- Now, about Mr. Monk, who made 18 of 28 shots and 8 of 12 from 3-point range, smashing the previous UK freshman record of 35 and marking the second-most points ever scored against North Carolina: “It’s not just that he had a bunch of baskets. He made, like, daggers that gave us a chance. I made two players in our locker room stand up and come hug him, because he saved them.”
- After a recent game in which Monk went about six minutes without touching the ball, Calipari said “we put two or three things in for him – not only for this game, for the season, where if he doesn’t get the ball for a couple, three trips down, then we’re running something that they have to throw him the ball,” Calipari said. It’s not often Calipari has gone out of his way to get it to one specific guy. “But he deserves our attention.”
- Monk even gets a little leeway: He was supposed to drive on the game-winning play, since UK was only down two. “I’d rather him gone to the rim and gotten fouled. Now you’ve got two, you’ve got one,” Calipari said. But “he threw it, bang, it went in. Now we’re up one. I said, ‘Great shot, kid. Keep playing. Let’s go.’ ” The coach joked players “never disobey me; dangerous move to disobey me,” but Monk is different.
- Calipari, whose team’s first nine wins were all blowouts, kept saying the Cats needed to be in a tight one. “We needed a close game. The game with UCLA wasn’t close. They killed us. We tried to make a little (run) at the end … but it was never (close),” he said. “This game was what a game should be: They make a play, you better make one. They miss a shot, you better come up with one. And you can’t panic.”
- So while winning a game like that, against a high-level opponent, is big, Calipari isn’t putting too much stock in it. “We’re still trying to figure each other out,” he said. “I’m glad we won, but if we had lost that game, I’d be saying, ‘It’s Dec. 17 and this is who we are on Dec. 17 against a really good team: good enough to beat them, good enough to lose to them. That’s who we are. Now my thing is: Where are we going to be one month from now.”
- Remember when Calipari said this might be his best defensive team ever? “What was I smoking?” he joked Saturday. “I also said that it’s one of the fastest teams I’ve coached, and I was right about that. So I was one out of two. What’s happened to us is people are exploiting individual players on my team. We’ve got to figure it out as a staff.”