On Thursday, Michigan Coach John Beilein reduced the NCAA Tournament to its essence.
Winning or losing, he said, was “about players making plays rather than (coaches calling) plays.”
Kentucky demonstrated the wisdom of those words Sunday in beating Wichita State 65-62 to advance to next weekend’s Sweet 16 round.
Wichita State shut off the transition game, the favorite component of UK’s offense. The Cats had no fast-break points in the first 35 minutes, and only two in the game.
That put the onus on making plays in the half-court against a set defense with the pressure of an abrupt ending to the season hovering in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Not the ideal conditions for contemplative strategy.
“The way we look at it sometimes is that teams that run patterns and all these different schemes, back screens and all that stuff, it takes away from just the game of basketball,” Derek Willis said. “The sense of where you can just go out and roll the ball out and do your thing.”
Again and again UK had players make plays. Often it was Bam Adebayo, who posted a double-double (13 points and 10 rebounds). He came alive after taking a hard foul with 7:46 left.
“When you fall, you wake up a little bit,” he said.
Kentucky did not have a monopoly on big plays. The teams traded emotional haymakers down the stretch.
With UK ahead 58-56, the slumping Malik Monk rose up and swished a three-pointer.
“Cal told me I’m always going to make the big-time shots, the dagger shots,” Monk said of UK Coach John Calipari.
The shot was a flashback to Kentucky’s December victory over North Carolina in Las Vegas. Monk launched from the same spot (left wing).
“Exactly,” he said. When asked if this was his favorite spot, Monk laughed and said, “Nah. I got a lot of spots.”
Monk’s shot held another similarity, this one proving Beilein’s point.
“It really wasn’t a call,” Monk said of the shot. “We were supposed to throw the ball to Bam. But I saw (the defender’s) hand down. I knew I was going to get a clean look.”
UK fans with good memories will recall Calipari screamed “Drive!” before Monk made the dagger three-pointer against North Carolina
It really wasn’t a (called play). We were supposed to throw the ball to Bam. But I saw (the defender’s) hand down. I knew I was going to get a clean look.
Malik Monk, on his late three-pointer
Monk’s recent shooting woes (3-for-21 from three-point range in the last five games) did not give him pause. Nor did the misses on seven of his previous nine shots in this game.
“I don’t even care,” he said of the misses. “If I made none in that game, I’m still going to shoot that one. I mean, I’m a shooter.”
After Wichita State’s Zach Brown answered with a three-pointer. De’Aaron Fox showed why he’s a driver. He drove and dunked to put Kentucky ahead 63-59 with 1:25 left.
Again, no call from the bench was necessary.
“Oh, no,” Fox said. “I’m trying to drive the whole game. Unless they make me shoot a jump shot, I’m going to drive.”
Fans of athletic drama got more clutch play to savor. Landry Shamet hit a three-pointer — part of a game-high 20-point performance — to reduce UK’s lead to 63-62 going into the final 40 seconds.
After Monk missed a floater, he blocked Markis McDuffie’s three-pointer.
When asked afterward if the dagger three or the timely block gave him more satisfaction, Monk turned on his infectious smile and said, “Probably the shot. I like scoring better.”
Monk made two free throws to put the Cats ahead by three with 10.6 seconds remaining. Time enough for one final clutch play.
Adebayo preserved the lead by blocking Shamet’s desperation three-point shot in the final seconds.
Kentucky improved to 31-5.
Wichita State lost for the second time in four years to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. As in 2014, the game wasn’t decided until Wichita State’s final shot did not go in. The Shockers finished this season with a 31-5 record.
Kentucky led 26-24 at halftime despite being outscored 14-6 in points from the paint.
That seemed significant because four of UK’s five losses this season came in games the Cats were outscored in the paint (at Louisville, at Tennessee, Kansas and at Florida).
UK won the only other five games it got outscored in the paint (Auburn, at Mississippi State, South Carolina, Georgia and against Alabama in the SEC Tournament). That happened again with Wichita State having a 28-24 advantage in points from the paint.
From the start, Wichita State made its intent to get the better of it around the basket known. The Shockers had as many offensive rebounds (four) as UK had total rebounds (four) before the first television timeout.
UK warmed to the challenge and out-rebounded Wichita State 22-21 in the first half.
Unlikely three-pointers enabled UK to lead at intermission. In one two-minute-plus stretch, Isaiah Briscoe, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins each made a three-pointer. Briscoe had made one of 15 shots from beyond the arc in the 11 most recent games. Mulder was 4-of-17 in the last seven. Hawkins came into the game shooting 29 percent from three-point range.
Nothing in the opening minutes of the second half suggested anything but a possession-by-possession grind to the finish.
What: NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal
Who: No. 2 seed Kentucky vs. No. 3 UCLA or No. 6 Cincinnati
When: Friday night (time TBA)
Where: FedEx Forum in Memphis
Tickets: Visit NCAA.com/MBBTickets