INDIANAPOLIS — Note to Kentucky’s future NCAA Tournament opponents: Wait until after the game to talk. Wichita State on Sunday joined 2015 West Virginia on a dubious list of teams that filled up the Wildcats’ pregame bulletin board, only to see their season end the next day.
Unlike the Mountaineers, who got run out of the building two years ago, the 10th-seeded Shockers at least made second-seeded Kentucky sweat this time. But in the end, the primary target of their talk — freshman star Bam Adebayo — delivered the kill shot, a last-second block, in a 65-62 victory that sent the Cats to the Sweet 16.
“We all saw everything that was said,” UK point guard De’Aaron Fox said afterward, “and it lit a fire under us.”
There was some general trash talk, with Wichita State forward Markis McDuffie saying before the game that he was “very tired of hearing about Kentucky” and guard Zach Bush calling the Cats a potential “notch on our belt” like recent Shockers upset victims Kansas, Arizona and Gonzaga. But the most pointed chatter was directed at Adebayo.
Wichita State forward Darral Willis Jr. said on Saturday that UK’s 6-foot-10, 260-pound big man was “getting shut down.” Adebayo instead recorded his second straight double-double and fifth in the last nine games: 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said on Saturday that he was going to throw a lot of bodies at Adebayo and “he’s going to need to be in great shape.” The agile forward played 31 minutes and had enough left in the tank to swat Landry Shamet’s potential-tying 3-point try at the buzzer.
Shamet had scored 20 points and buried a series of big buckets late, and he’d pump-faked Dominique Hawkins off his feet, but Adebayo was there waiting when he finally rose up. Were he so inclined, Adebayo could’ve crowed about what was a fitting exclamation point. But he’s more the quiet type.
“I just go out there and play basketball, man,” the hero said. “Trash talking is not for me. I just stick with my teammates and we get things done. We fight, we play hard, we go out there and just play.”
The rest of the Wildcats were less reserved in the afterglow of their highly satisfying victory — the second time in three years Kentucky has bounced a Wichita State team with 30-plus wins from the second round of the NCAA Tournament by way of a thrilling throwdown. The postgame locker room brings a green light to gab.
“I just kind of look at their team like they’re the best ‘little man,’ if that makes sense,” said senior Derek Willis, whose 9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and a block might’ve been the most important contribution of his UK career. “Teams coming in saying stuff like that, from our past history, it’s never a good idea. I think this was one of the more personal games that I’ve played in, other than maybe the (Louisville) rivalry games and back in high school.
“But it was fun. It got me in a better mindset.”
Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe, who steadied the Wildcats early when the rest of their starters were struggling, is quite a talker himself. “But eventually you gotta play the game,” he said. Star guard Malik Monk, who blocked the Shockers’ 3-point try to go in front with 13 seconds left and sank two free throws with 10 ticks remaining, put it another way: “I wouldn’t do that. Some people might feel comfortable doing that, but every team’s going to have to step in the ring.”
Reporters kept circling back to Adebayo in the postgame locker room, prodding and prodding for something that sounded like That showed them! But he wasn’t having any of that. He grinned at every attempt and then deflected it.
He was more interested in the text message that had just popped up on his phone. Adebayo’s mother wanted him to know she was proud and she loved him.
“Some people don’t have mothers in this world. I feel sorry for them because they’ll never learn what a mother’s love feels like,” he said, demolishing any imagery of the conquering giant he is. “I’m just blessed that I get to see mine almost every day and just kiss her on the cheek. She might just kiss me on the cheek and say, ‘You still got two more weeks.’”
Outside the arena, a Kentucky TV station (WMYT) actually captured Adebayo’s mom saying a little more than that: “Oh, no, he didn’t shut him down, did he? Bam went at him, too, didn’t he? Oh, yes he did!”
So, maybe all that trash talk didn’t motivate Adebayo — his teammates are skeptical — but it sure seemed to be fuel for everyone else involved.
“We heard what they were saying, specifically about Bam, saying, ‘I hope he’s in shape.’ He looked like he was in pretty good shape to me,” senior guard Mychal Mulder said. “They said they were going to shut him down. Last I checked, he came up with a double-double. No one in the country is going to shut him down.
“They did a lot of talking, but at the end of the day, they’re going home and we’ll be in Memphis.”
That’s the site of the South Regional semifinals, where Kentucky will play in its sixth Sweet 16 in the last eight seasons.
Bam Adebayo's mother, Marilyn Blount, after UK's victory over Wichita State. "He didn't shut (Bam) down, did he?! Bam went at him!" pic.twitter.com/uRkR8B1vhD
— Tanner Hesterberg (@TannerWKYT) March 19, 2017