Kentucky’s 97-71 victory over Arkansas Saturday night brought a new dimension to how Malik Monk’s at-times spectacular scoring this season should be judged.
It can be memorable, thrilling and – ask North Carolina – historically good.
But it’s not indispensable to a winning Kentucky effort.
Monk struggled against his home-state school. For the first time this season, the freshman from Lepanto, Ark., failed to make a three-point shot (0 for five). His 12 points were his fewest since scoring 10 in the season’s opener against Stephen F. Austin.
Yet, Kentucky led for the final 27 minutes, slowly expanding the lead as the game unfolded. In the process, UK made a bit of history. The Cats won a third straight game by 23 or more points to open Southeastern Conference play. That hadn’t happened since Kentucky’s unbeaten season of 1953-54.
Fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox scored a career-high 27 points. His previous high – 24 against North Carolina – got lost in the glare of Monk’s glittering 47-point show on the Las Vegas strip.
“De’Aaron Fox was ridiculous,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “He’s been doing extra work. He’s been coming early. (Pause) Not by choice.”
That work paid off, Calipari said.
Derek Willis, who had scored double-digit points in only four previous games, equaled a season high with 15.
“We knew about him,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said of Willis. “We just didn’t do a very good job.”
Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo chipped in 15 and 11 points, respectively, as UK improved to 13-2 overall and 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
Arkansas, the last SEC team to win in Rupp Arena (71-67 on Feb. 27, 2014), fell to 12-3 overall and 1-2 in the SEC.
As Kentucky pulled away in the second half, the game grew contentious. That harkened back to the early days of Arkansas’ entry into the SEC. The Hogs won their first game in Rupp Arena, doing so in a fashion that said they came to compete, not play a co-starring role in a UK coronation.
Anderson seemed to suggest on Thursday that the game would be intense.
“It’s Arkansas-Kentucky,” he said. “You need to say no more.”
The first half proved that Kentucky was not solely dependent on Monk. He scored only two points before halftime, seemed to be forcing shots and went to the bench midway through the first half because of two fouls.
That Kentucky did not wilt probably did not surprise Anderson.
“It’s a team that’s more than just Malik,” the Arkansas coach said of UK on Thursday. “Adebayo, the Fox kid. Briscoe. He’s big, big with their basketball team. . . . They have great balance.”
Arkansas is dependent on its top players producing, Anderson said. For Kentucky, Monk is merely one option.
“That’s why it’s T-E-A-M,” Anderson said.
Briscoe made only one of six shots in the first half, but it was memorable.
Once again, he had more than one of his shots at the end of drives blocked. He followed up on what he said after the Texas A&M game on Tuesday: that he was hesitant to change his offensive game in order to follow Calipari’s advice to put more arc on his shots from the lane.
But with 4:01 left, Briscoe drove and put extra height on the shot. It banked in to push UK’s lead to 32-24. That came near the end of a 12-0 UK run. The shot prompted an Arkansas timeout and moved Calipari to come onto the court and greet Briscoe as the UK player approached the bench.
Kentucky again got mixed results from its forward position. Wenyen Gabriel picked up two fouls barely two minutes into the game and went to the bench. He returned with 9:49 left and picked up his third foul 93 seconds later.
Willis picked up the slack. Having made only three of 14 three-point shots in the last three games, he hit a pair of shots from beyond the arc.
As with Kentucky and Monk, Arkansas survived the first half despite getting little from one of its leading lights.
Moses Kingsley did not score nor grab a rebound in the first 16 minutes. He came alive late, finally scoring on two free throws with 3:50 left.
Kingsley scored seven points in the final 3:50, including a three-pointer – his second of the season and first since Dec. 3 – to reduce Kentucky’s halftime lead to 41-38.
As the second half began, Kentucky stayed ahead, albeit a bit uncomfortably.
Monk’s second basket – a fast-break layup with 16:05 left – put Kentucky ahead 53-44. It drew a loud cheer.
As the game grew contentious, Kentucky built a double-digit lead. Briscoe got knocked to the floor trying to take a charge on Jaylen Barford. Barford appeared to step on the fallen Briscoe, which drew disapproval from UK fans and a protective bump from Fox.
Barford said he did not intend to step on Briscoe. Teammate Manny Watkins attributed the incident to an emotional rivalry.
“It’s Arkansas-Kentucky,” he said. “They don’t like us, and we don’t like them.”
After rushing to separate players, the referees checked the monitor and gave Barford and Fox technical fouls.
On the next possession, Adebayo dunked a put-back while being fouled. This call, perhaps an effort to keep control of the game, irked Anderson. Adebayo’s three-point play put UK ahead 60-48 with 14:29 left.
More than once down the stretch, referees had to separate players and coaches ventured far from their benches.
More than once in the post-game news conference, Anderson lamented how Kentucky shot 40 free throws, almost double the 21 shot by Arkansas. The Cats topped Arkansas’ total in the final 12 minutes.
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)