On the eve of a second Kentucky-North Carolina game, the prevailing opinion here seemed to be: What happened in Vegas should stay in Vegas.
Of course, Kentucky outlasted UNC, 103-100, on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas. If both teams have improved defensively as much as they say, the rematch Sunday in the NCAA Tournament South Region finals will be about as different as the fertile fields of western Tennessee are to the Nevada desert.
“It was just a high-scoring game,” said Malik Monk, who led all scorers with 47 points. “We can’t let it get like that anymore.”
When the offensive fireworks subsided, Kentucky had won a game in which the opponent scored 100 points for the first time since the 1979 Southeastern Conference Tournament (101-100 over Alabama).
Kentucky and North Carolina combined to make 53.6 percent of the shots and had almost a two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio (37 assists, 19 turnovers).
With a telling qualifier, UK point guard De’Aaron Fox marveled at the level of play.
“Oh, it was extremely high (pause), offensively, I can say,” he said Saturday. “But the defense, it’s tough to stop two teams like that. But if we’re going to win this game, we know we have to do it.”
Except for the winning, the Cats voiced a reluctance to try to beat North Carolina the same way. Fox cited a recent example of why it will not be.
“That December game, there was no defense in that game,” Fox said. “Yesterday, we showed we can defend. We know we’re going to have to do the same thing against North Carolina.”
Kentucky (32-5) claimed to have evolved during the season: From accelerator-to-the-floor speed in the early season to dependence on defensive zeal and offensive prudence.
“At the beginning of the year, we were a young team,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “Full of freshmen. We didn’t really know our identity. So we were just going to play off our speed and athleticism.”
Opponents adjusted to the transition speed by making a concerted effort to get back on defense. This accentuated UK’s need to improve defensively, something UK Coach John Calipari made clear going into this NCAA Tournament.
“If we don’t defend, we’ll lose real fast, like real fast,” he said. “If we guard and play with real energy and disrupt and do the things we’ve been doing, it should be a fun NCAA Tournament.”
On Saturday, Calipari linked the change to the “reboot” he ordered as the regular season wound down.
Neither Northern Kentucky nor Wichita State made 40 percent of their shots in UK’s first two NCAA Tournament games. Then, on Friday, the Cats limited UCLA to its second-lowest point total of the season. The Bruins had been leading the nation in scoring (90.2 ppg).
“We played a great defensive game today,” associate coach Kenny Payne said after the 86-75 victory over UCLA. “Every shot, we wanted it to be hard.
“We did an excellent job of getting after them. They made some tough shots, but we never relinquished staying after them.”
When asked whether slowing the pace was part of the strategy, Payne said, “Not at all. We’d love to play a 90-point game with them. But we wouldn’t want them to score 90.
“Our motto was we don’t want this to be an offensive game for both teams. We wanted it to be an offensive game for us. But we wanted to shut them down offensively and make them make tough twos, not threes.”
Justin Jackson, who had a career-high 34 points against Kentucky in Las Vegas, credited Monk as being that difference-maker.
“Malik Monk had 47 points,” he said. “It’s hard to stop a team when they’ve got somebody scoring 47. Fox played well for them. Bam (Adebayo) made plays for them.
“But 47 points, that’s a lot.”
Jackson suggested Theo Pinson, who missed the first game because of injury, as a possible defender to slow, if not stop, Monk on Sunday.
“I think there’s a little more length,” he said of Pinson, who is 6-foot-6. “So maybe that can bother him a little bit.”
Pinson said he would try to bother Monk, limit easy baskets and keep him off the foul line.
“Kenny (Williams) was on him most of the game,” Pinson said of Monk, “and he (Monk) got comfortable.”
Both teams spoke of their defenses preventing much comfort in the rematch.
Kentucky vs. North Carolina
What: NCAA Tournament South Region finals
Where: FedExForum in Memphis
When: 5:05 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 32-5, North Carolina 30-7
Series: North Carolina leads 23-15
Last meeting: Kentucky won 103-100 on Dec. 17 at the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas