Only one of Kentucky’s two All-America candidates played Saturday. Trouble? Not when Malik Monk did the work of two — or more — stars.
Monk’s signature style in surely his only UK season paved the way in a 76-66 victory over Florida. An explosion of points thrilled a packed Rupp Arena, made the absence of point guard De’Aaron Fox to a bruised knee incidental and assured Kentucky sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference with a week to go in the regular season.
Monk, whose earlier starbursts came against North Carolina and in the first Georgia game, rained points on Florida like confetti. He scored 30 of his 33 points in the second half. That marked the most points scored in a half in John Calipari’s eight seasons as UK coach. The previous high had been Monk’s 27 in the first half against UNC in December and the 27 Jamal Murray scored in the second half against Ohio State the previous season.
“I think I was hotter against North Carolina than today … ,” Monk said. “I was just playing basketball. I was tired, though. Super tired.”
After making only one of five shots in the first half, Monk made eight of 13 in the second. He made all four of his three-point shots in the second half after missing two of three in the first.
When asked how a 30-point half felt, Monk gave an answer only he could form: “It was normal,” he said. “I felt normal.”
Bam Adebayo played Robin to Monk’s Catman. He scored 18 points and equaled the career-high 15 rebounds he grabbed at Missouri four nights earlier.
Kentucky improved to 24-5 overall and 14-2 in the SEC, the latter assuring UK of no worse than a two-seed in the upcoming league tournament.
Florida fell to 23-6 and 13-3 in the SEC. KeVaughn Allen led the Gators with 24 points.
The teams were tied 28-28 at halftime, and Kentucky had to feel fortunate.
The Cats made only eight of 28 shots and committed three times as many turnovers (12) as assists (four). UK led for only 74 seconds in the first half, and trailed by as much as 12 points.
Given those numbers and the fact that UK essentially got nothing from its two All-America candidates, a tie seemed a bountiful harvest. In addition to Fox being sidelined, Monk was a non-factor. He tied his career high of five turnovers and made only one shot in the half.
Florida Coach Mike White acknowledged a lost opportunity to put Kentucky in comeback mode.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said.
Any thoughts of a big payback game for Kentucky faded fast. Florida, which beat UK 88-66 earlier this month, scored the game’s first eight points. UK committed the first two of its 12 first-half turnovers before Calipari called time with 18:07 left. UK came into the game averaging only 12.1 turnovers.
Allen led Florida’s fast break from the gate. He scored 11 of the Gators’ first 18 points, several of the shots coming over Monk.
But when Allen picked up his second foul at the 12:51 mark, that slowed Florida’s momentum.
A break enabled Kentucky to tie it at 28-28. Devin Robinson fouled going over Wenyen Gabriel for an offensive rebound in the final second. It was Florida’s second foul in the final 7.1 seconds of the half.
“Both very ill-advised by older guys,” White said. “We needed to be the more mature team, and we didn’t take advantage in that regard.”
Coming alive in the second half, Monk tested the theory that one player cannot beat a team. He scored 19 of UK’s first 23.
“He took the game over,” White said. “He was amazing. It was probably the best performance against us all year.”
White had no complaint about his team’s defense on Monk.
“We didn’t have a bunch of glaring mistakes that we made,” he said. “Malik Monk’s got an ability to get it off just about any time he wants.”
White saw the times Florida fouled Monk on jump shots as evidence of intent to play good defense. “That’s how aware you are of how good a shooter he is.”
Calipari lauded how Monk did not simply shoot jumpers. He drove and drew fouls, which the UK coach had been demanding all season. Monk’s 10 made free throws were a career high, and the 11 attempts were one shy of a career high. All came in the second half.
Besides burning the nets, Monk torched Florida’s depth at point guard. Chris Chiozza picked up his fourth foul defending Monk with 13:07 left. Kasey Hill got his fourth the same way at the 10:01 mark.
After Monk’s heroics against North Carolina, Calipari ordered Gabriel and Derek Willis to give the freshman guard hugs of appreciation.
No hugs on Saturday, Monk said. “I didn’t bail anyone out.”
On second thought, Monk remembered that Calipari gave him a hug and a verbal compliment.
“That’s how you play basketball,” Calipari told him.
Vanderbilt at No. 11 Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)