MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There were two big headlines from Kentucky’s Sweet 16 victory over UCLA on Friday night: De’Aaron Fox dominating Lonzo Ball and Malik Monk finally busting his recent shooting slump. But the Wildcats might not have been celebrating a trip to the Elite Eight without yet another clutch performance by their pair of homegrown seniors.
Derek Willis delivered 8 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and a block, while Dominique Hawkins came off the bench for 11 points, including three 3-pointers, in 17 minutes. It wasn’t so much their numbers as their timing, however.
Kentucky trailed 11-8 in the first half before Hawkins and Willis swished back-to-back 3s to take a 3-point lead. And when the Bruins got within 4 points with 8:51 to go, Hawkins and Willis did it again: consecutive 3-pointers to blow the game open for good.
“Dom did what he does again,” coach John Calipari said. “It’s nice that we got some good guys — and good guys playing well at the right time.”
Willis has buried 11 3-pointers and is averaging 7.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2 blocks this postseason. He’d averaged just 5 boards during the regular season. Hawkins has nailed 8 of 14 3-pointers and averaged 9.2 points in the last five postseason games. He’d averaged 3.8 points in the previous 32 games.
“I’m just more desperate now,” Willis said, speaking for himself and his roommate of four years, Hawkins. “This is the last postseason I’ll play in my college career, so I want to make the most of it. I’m just more locked in.”
Friday night’s performance was a reminder of how far both seniors have come. Hawkins used to be afraid to shoot. He’d only made three 3-pointers in a game once in his previous 119 career games.
And Willis used to be easily derailed by mistakes early in a game. UCLA’s TJ Leaf lit him up in the first half Friday — 13 points, 4 rebounds by the break — and Willis started 1 for 9 shooting. But then he held Leaf to 4 points in the second half and didn’t hesitate to rise up for his 10th attempt, that key 3-pointer that gave Kentucky some late breathing room.
“Coach Cal, he’s instilled it in me,” Willis said of his sudden confidence. “All those days, hours I’ve spent in the gym shooting, all the work I’ve done with Kenny Payne, the assistants, it just comes down to this.”
Fox, Monk and fellow freshman star Bam Adebayo are critically important to the Wildcats’ pursuit of the program’s ninth national title, but there is little chance Kentucky can hang another banner without the veterans.
“It means a lot to us,” Hawkins said. “We know once we’re on the court, we’re able to make plays. Everybody tells us to be confident, and when you get the ball, shoot it.”