INDIANAPOLIS — Malik Monk, sitting in Kentucky’s locker room after sealing a Sweet 16 berth, was asked how many big defensive plays he’s had in his career. The freshman guard, known for his electric offense, smiled.
“Probably none,” he said. “Probably my first one.”
With 16 seconds left, Wichita State forward Markis McDuffie jabbed, took one dribble to his right, and pulled up for a 3-pointer that would’ve given the Shockers a 2-point lead. But Monk, a shooter whose own shot has not been falling lately, met McDuffie in the air and delivered the biggest block — the biggest defensive play — of his career.
“I was just timing his dribble,” Monk said. “I knew he was gonna shoot the 3 at some point. As soon as he picked it up I knew I timed his jump shot perfectly.”
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Monk’s block was the prequel to Bam Adebayo’s last-second swat that sealed the game. Together they led to a 65-62 margin that propelled second-seeded Kentucky onward in the NCAA Tournament and sent 10th-seeded Wichita State home.
Monk might be the most likely Wildcat to nail a game-winner from behind the arc, but the 6-foot-3 guard wouldn’t be the pick to notch a key block. He admitted surprising even himself, and probably his coach as well.
“It was great to have Malik back,” John Calipari said after the game. “Haven’t seen him for a while. He’s on that path, still not all the way back, but he’s on the path that we need him on.”
The defense was there, but Monk’s shot is still missing. He’s shooting just 18 of 54 (33 percent) from the field and 5 of 22 (23 percent) from 3-point range in five postseason games dating back to the SEC Tournament. Subtract the postseason shooting woes and Monk is a 41 percent shooter from 3-point range.
“It’s gonna go away,” senior Mychal Mulder said of the slump. “There’s nothing that can stop that kid from scoring the basketball. Nothing or nobody in the country.”
He was 3 of 10 and 2 of 5 behind the arc against Wichita State on Sunday.
“We all know he’s a sleeping volcano,” freshman De’Aaron Fox said. “He can erupt at any second. But when he’s not, when he’s dormant, he’s able to play defense, he does the little things for us.”
The block, however, was not small at all.
“That was the biggest play of the game,” senior Dominique Hawkins said. “Without him it probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Monk’s imprint on the game looked like it came two minutes earlier when he drilled a 3-pointer to put Kentucky up 61-56. The play was to get the ball to Adebayo in the post, but Monk saw a chance to fire.
Asked if the block or the bucket felt sweeter, Monk the scorer wasted no time picking the shot.
“I like scoring better,” he said.
But the block is what Kentucky fans will remember, and it represents important progress for Monk, a projected top-10 NBA draft pick about whom the only critique is that he’s merely a scorer.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said. “I never played defense, never had to play defense. I knew coming to Kentucky, to play, I had to play defense.”