LAS VEGAS – The funny thing about Malik Monk’s heroic 3-pointer is that he was supposed to drive the ball. Get to the rim, get fouled if you can. Those were the orders.
“But I was hot,” Monk said, “so I didn’t.”
Sixth-ranked Kentucky trailed seventh-ranked North Carolina by just two points with less than 30 seconds to go Saturday in what turned out to be the best college basketball game of the season so far. The Wildcats didn’t need a three, but Monk wanted one.
“He threw it, bang, it went in,” said coach John Calipari, who’d commanded him to do exactly the opposite. “Great shot, kid.”
Monk’s final bucket, with 22 seconds remaining, gave him a UK freshman-record 47 points and delivered a thrilling, 103-100 victory for Kentucky on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic. It was a performance – and a coaching philosophy from Calipari – that confirmed beyond all doubt what has long been suspected: Monk is special.
“Malik was off the charts,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Yeah, you always like to attack and be aggressive, but if I was 7 for 11 at that point in the game, I’d shoot the sucker from three as well. I know (Calipari) was a player, but he wasn’t as good as Malik. I think when he shot the ball and it went in, John was glad he didn’t listen to him.”
After Monk poured in 27 points in the first half and helped Kentucky build a 10-point lead in the second, North Carolina’s Justin Jackson tried to steal the show. On his way to 34 points, Jackson gave the Tar Heels their first lead since early in the first half on a 3-pointer with 97 seconds to go.
Monk answered that with a tying three moments later. And when Jackson’s go-ahead layup dropped with 47 ticks left, Monk delivered the decisive points on his unauthorized eighth and final 3-pointer of the game. He hesitated, pump-faking once before rising up to bury the big shot.
“I was in the flow,” Monk said, “so I wasn’t nervous at all.”
In fact, he said it felt like a pick-up game as he scored the second-most points against North Carolina in that program’s rich history. Only Duke’s Dick Groat – with 48 points in 1952 – put more on the Tar Heels. Monk’s 47 are the most by a Kentucky player in the Calipari era (2009-10 to present) and sixth-most ever by a Wildcat, tying the great Dan Issel.
“When someone’s hot like that, you just keep giving him the ball,” said freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox, who had 24 points and 10 assists in the win. “So I’m looking at Cal – he wanted to take him out – he had six in a row already and he scored again when I was sitting down at the scorer’s table. I was like, ‘You all still want me to take him out?’ And they changed it.”
You see, Calipari is doing something with Monk we’ve rarely seen from the coach: telling teammates to give him the ball and, essentially, get the hell out of the way. Monk’s 28 shots Saturday (of which he hit 18) weren’t the product of a cocky McDonald’s All-American hijacking the game. Calipari doesn’t stand for that.
No, in this case, he wanted Monk to keep firing. He demanded it. And that’s an order the electric freshman will always follow.
“We put two or three things in for him, not only for this game (but) 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. Why, when he’s done that so rarely in the past, even as a parade of NBA lottery picks passed through his program? “He deserves our attention.”
Of course, the coach went on to criticize Monk – he of the 42-inch vertical – for grabbing zero rebounds against North Carolina. And for only shooting five free throws. To be so explosive, there’s no excuse for not attacking the glass and forcing the issue at the rim.
But on this day, that was nit-picking, and Calipari didn’t spend much time harping on the negatives.
“It’s not just that he had a bunch of baskets,” the coach said. “He made daggers that gave us a chance. I made two players in our locker room stand up and come up and hug him, because he saved them. Now I hope there is a point where he’s got to go hug one of them for something he’s done that they covered his back.”
Until then, you can bet Calipari and the Cats will keep riding the hot hand.