There was a crowd waiting for Bam Adebayo when he got back to his locker following UK’s 65-62 victory over Wichita State on Sunday.
The first question directed at the Wildcats’ star of the second-round NCAA Tournament game would have to be repeated. As soon as he sat down, Adebayo reached for his phone.
“Say that one more time,” he told the reporter a few seconds later. “I was texting my mom.”
Everybody wanted to talk to Adebayo on Sunday. Seemingly everybody on Wichita State’s side had been talking about him 24 hours earlier.
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Shockers Coach Gregg Marshall bragged Saturday about his “three-headed monster” at the center position and — noting that he was sure Adebayo is in great shape — said that the UK big man would need to be in great shape for Wichita State.
Darral Willis Jr. — the Shockers’ 6-foot-9 junior — was reminded of Adebayo’s 18 rebounds against Northern Kentucky in the Cats’ first-round victory.
“Yeah, that’s going to get shut down tomorrow,” Willis told KSTV. “A lot of teams don’t box out, and that’s what we do.”
Willis also said that UK’s team was “nothing special.” Markis McDuffie — Wichita State’s leading scorer — said he was “tired of hearing” about the Wildcats.
Other, similar things were said by the Shockers. Later in the day, a UK official collected all of those quotes, and the pregame talk was passed along to the Wildcats, who walked into Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday well aware of what had been said.
“If people aren’t going to respect us, I think — as a team — we just kind of have to take it personally, honestly,” said UK senior Derek Willis. “I definitely took it that way. It kind of sets you off.”
Adebayo was the subject of most of that talk. He responded on the court.
The UK freshman had 13 points, 10 rebounds (more than any Wichita State player, by the way) and the game-winning blocked shot at the buzzer.
Once it was time to talk, Bam didn’t take the bait.
“I just go out there and play basketball,” he said. “All that trash talk means nothing to me. At the end of the day, you gotta step on the court.”
Adebayo stomped all over it against the Shockers, who sent body after body his way with the same result. There was a 58-second span midway through the second half that best summed up his afternoon.
Two days after Calipari screamed at his players to get the ball to Adebayo in the post against Northern Kentucky, the offense flowed through the UK big man when the Cats needed it most.
Leading 45-44, the ball went to Adebayo, who kicked it out to Willis for a three-pointer. A few seconds later, Adebayo left his feet for a rebound and was undercut by Wichita State center Shaquille Morris. Adebayo fell to the floor in a heap — hitting the hardwood with a thud — and stayed there for a little while as the rest of the players on the court headed to their respective sidelines for the under-eight timeout.
Adebayo got up and walked to UK’s huddle, a flicker of anger on his face.
“I mean, I hit the ground kinda hard,” he said after the game.
He came out of that timeout and got a quick put-back two for the Cats.
Next trip down the court, he ripped at the rim with a thunderous dunk to put Kentucky ahead, 52-46. That was his final basket of the game. His block on Landry Shamet’s three-point attempt at the buzzer sealed it for the Wildcats.
Adebayo’s mother was in the crowd Sunday, and the UK player’s face lit up more when talking about her presence than it did with talking about his own performance.
What did that text message say when he sat down at his locker?
“She texted me that she loves me and she’s proud of me,” he said. “I texted back, ‘I love you, too.’”
And what did he think mom would say when he saw her in person later that night?
“She might just kiss me on the cheek and say, ‘You still got two more weeks.’ She’s going to tell me to keep playing hard.”