Tradition holds that the NCAA Tournament is about guard play and experience. Kentucky senior Dominique Hawkins continued to fit both categories on Selection Sunday.
Long a fan favorite as a native of Madison County, Hawkins gave the Big Blue Nation a memorable treat by seemingly cloning himself. He was everywhere in UK’s 82-65 victory over Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals.
Hawkins scored a career-high 14 points and doubled his previous career high with four steals.
“Man, Dom’s been doing his thing,” Isaiah Briscoe said. “It’s probably one of the best games I’ve ever seen him play.”
But mere numbers did not do justice to Hawkins’ all-over-the-court presence. When he went to the bench for a brief rest with 9:38 left, the many UK fans in a crowd announced as 19,953 rose and showered him with warm applause.
Kentucky won its third straight SEC Tournament, bringing its official total of titles in this event to 30 (UK vacated the 1988 title).
The Cats will take a 29-5 record into the NCAA Tournament, where a player like Hawkins can make a telling difference.
When asked if Hawkins checked the boxes for guard play and steady experience, Malik Monk said, “100 percent. He checks every box. Any kind of list you got for older guards, he checks it all.”
Although the starting guard trio of De’Aaron Fox, Monk and Isaiah Briscoe led Kentucky to this point, their backups keyed this championship game victory.
Monk and Fox each played limited minutes early because each was called for two fouls. Neither was on the court after Arkansas closed to within 23-22.
In not only preserving the lead, but expanding it to the 12-point halftime cushion, Hawkins was everywhere.
In a two-minute span that deserved permanent entry in the UK basketball storybook, he twice stole inbounds passes, twice scored baskets and once forced an offensive foul because of his pressure defense.
That sequence put Kentucky ahead 31-22 going into the final five minutes of the half.
It unfolded like this: After Bam Adebayo scored inside, Hawkins alertly stole a lazy inbounds pass and scored.
Next time downcourt, he deflected the ensuing inbounds pass and saved it off an Arkansas player.
“That was crazy,” Hawkins said. “I really don’t know how I got the (first) steal. I wasn’t even trying to steal one of them. He just threw it right to me.”
On the next Arkansas possession, Hawkins’ defense led Anton Beard to push off.
The resulting charge gave UK possession. The Cats cashed in with two Adebayo free throws.
“He’s just blowing everyone’s mind (because) he’s playing so well,” Isaac Humphries said of Hawkins. “We’re so happy for him to be playing as well as he is right now.”
Hawkins returned for an encore in the final minute. His three-pointer — created when he jumped high to catch a Briscoe pass — put the Cats ahead 39-30.
A three-pointer by Mychal Mulder at the buzzer gave Kentucky its 12-point halftime lead.
Hawkins scored nine points in the first half. He’d scored that many in a game only twice this season: nine at Georgia and 10 at home against Tennessee.
“It’s almost like you’re waiting to put him in the game, like something has to happen so you can hurry up and put him in,” UK Coach John Calipari said of the spark Hawkins can provide. “His energy level. His aggressiveness.”
Briscoe spoke of Hawkins’ energy being contagious.
“It’s like a chain reaction,” Briscoe said. “You see Dom diving on the floor, getting steals, you look like you’re part of it. And then you start doing those things without even noticing it.”
The possibility of Arkansas rallying faded early in the second half.
Moses Kingsley, the preseason SEC Player of the Year, scored his first basket at the 18:01 mark.
Five seconds later, Monk was dunking at the other end to restore a 16-point Kentucky lead.
Arkansas, which trailed for more than 35 minutes and led for less than two, kept competing. The Razorbacks got within 73-64 with 1:30 left.
Hawkins, who indeed was everywhere this day, could not find a teammate to inbounds the ball to, so he called timeout. One referee, Anthony Jordan, signaled a turnover on a five-second violation. Another referee, Doug Shows, allowed the timeout.
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson grimaced and walked angrily onto the court. But the call stood. One last triumph for Hawkins with the hope of more to come.
Northern Kentucky vs. Kentucky at Indianapolis