Notebook: Experience in Close Games Pays off in Clutch

INDIANAPOLIS – Even as Kentucky fans longed for blowouts, the Wildcats remained steadfast that close games would serve them well in the long run.

The time would come, they said, that the experience would pay off.

Sunday was one such instance, as UK survived a back-and-forth second-round battle with Wichita State that seemed destined from the opening tip to come down to the final possession.

“We’ve been in those games before,” Isaiah Briscoe said. “We’ve come out on top. We just continue to grow as a team.”

UK’s 65-62 victory – which required not one but two game-saving blocks in the final 15 seconds – was its ninth in a row in games decided by single digits. Prior to that, the Cats were just 3-4 in such games.

“We’re maturing and we listen,” Bam Adebayo said. “We may be all freshmen, but it doesn’t matter. We’re maturing and we’re starting to get experience because we had experiences in the SEC. We had big games and we had to stay cool. We won together.”

Adebayo had the second of UK’s two blocked 3-pointers in the final seconds, Malik Monk the first. Monk also calmly sank a pair of three throws after his own to stretch UK’s lead to three, while De’Aaron Fox, and Derek Willis also scored big baskets in the final 10 minutes.

“Just coming up with big plays,” Willis said. “That’s what our team does. Everybody can make those plays at any given moment. I think Malik definitely stepped into his shoes again tonight, did his thing, came up with a huge block. … Just making plays. All it is is fight. Just wanted it more than the other team.”

That sounds like exactly the kind of group John Calipari wants heading to the Sweet 16.

“These guys up here, they're young, but they have a will to win and play with courage and are skilled basketball players and great kids who share,” Coach Cal said. “So proud of them.”

UK’s regular-season schedule looking even stronger

Kentucky earned the top overall two seed in the NCAA Tournament partially due to a schedule ranked among the toughest in the country.

Results in the tournament have only served to reinforce the strength of that schedule.

That begins with the Southeastern Conference. Florida punched its Sweet 16 ticket on Saturday night with a demolition of Virginia. Arkansas nearly followed suit, but top-seeded North Carolina used a late 10-0 run to avoid the upset. South Carolina will face Duke on Sunday night.

All told, UK has faced five of the 20 teams still alive as of 8:30 p.m. on Sunday: Florida, South Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and North Carolina.

Zone buster

Late in the game, Wichita State went to a 1-3-1 zone defense.

The thought, it would seem, was that an unconventional look would flummox a young team led by a freshman point guard. Instead, Fox recognized it right away.

“They had been playing man most of the whole half,” Fox said. “I think they got in the 1-3-1, some type of defense. I called it out.”

Then Fox did one better, slicing through the defense for a thunderous left-handed dunk.

“It came from the right wing,” Fox said. “I called it, and I saw nobody behind my defender. Most of the time, I'm not looking at the guy guarding me. When I saw there was nobody there and I had a clear lane, I just took it.”

Be advised, future opponents: A 1-3-1 might not be the best option.

UK opts not to foul up three

No coach is more closely associated with the to-foul-or-not-to-foul debate with a 3-point lead in the final seconds than Coach Cal.

UK was up 65-62 when Wichita State took over possession with 10.6 seconds left. The plan was to play straight-up defense, but Calipari began to think otherwise when the clocked ticked under five and the Shockers had not yet made a move.

“It entered my mind when they messed around with the ball, but I hadn't said anything,” Calipari said. “When it got down to four, five, I'm thinking we gotta foul.”

There was no changing at that point though and, fortunately, UK has a 6-foot-10 freak able to switch off his man and make a perimeter block in Adebayo.

“We knew what we were doing, switching everything and playing high,” Calipari said.