Throughout the ups and downs of Malik Monk’s season, John Calipari has implored the explosive freshman guard to find ways to contribute to Kentucky victories when his shots aren’t falling.
On Sunday, with UK’s season on the brink in another NCAA Tournament round-of-32 thriller with Wichita State, Monk showed he has taken those pleas to heart.
In the kind of possession-by-possession grinder that, for much of the year, many questioned whether Kentucky could win, a Monk defensive play was the pivotal moment in extending UK’s season.
“That’s crazy,” a beaming Monk said afterward, shaking his head.
It was true.
Wichita State had the ball, down 63-62, as the game clock went under 15 seconds. On the right wing, Shockers forward Markis McDuffie took a couple of dribbles, picked up the ball and rose to try a three-pointer.
Timing his jump perfectly, the 6-foot-3 Monk blocked the 6-8 McDuffie’s trey attempt, came up with the ball and drained two free throws with 10.6 seconds left that put Kentucky ahead 65-62.
After Bam Adebayo blocked yet another Wichita three-point attempt at the final buzzer, UK had a 65-62 win before 18,293 in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“Really proud of the guys,” Calipari said. “Hard game to play. (Wichita State) really grinds it out.”
The victory gives the Cats their sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 in Calipari’s eight years as Wildcats coach. South Region No. 2 seed UK (31-5) will face either No. 3 UCLA or No. 6 Cincinnati on Friday night in Memphis.
The point of college is new experiences. On Sunday, Monk found himself describing an outcome-impacting defensive play for, he said, the first time in his life.
“I timed everything,” Monk said. “I timed (McDuffie’s) dribbles. As soon as he picked (the ball) up, I knew what he was going to do. I jumped, was able to block it.”
Even as Monk lit North Carolina for 47 and Georgia for 37 in a season of prolific, if streaky, scoring, questions about his all-around game have abounded.
He’s heard them, too.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to prove the whole college season, that I have an all-around game,” Monk said. “I’ve been working on my defense all year.”
Just as Wichita State did in 2014’s epic round-of-32 meeting with Kentucky — which the Wildcats won 78-76 to spoil WSU’s bid for a perfect season — Gregg Marshall’s Shockers again fully tested Kentucky’s mettle.
While UK heroes were many, it was Monk who supplied many of UK’s late answers.
Of Kentucky’s final 15 points, Monk scored or assisted on seven of them.
As has been well chronicled, Monk entered Sunday’s game locked in a shooting funk. UK’s leading scorer (20.4), he had made only 17 of 54 field goals over Kentucky’s prior five games before Sunday.
Yet after Wichita State cut a 58-51 UK lead to 58-56, Monk took Kentucky’s most important shot of the game. Rising from the left wing with 2:06 left, he buried a cold-blooded three-point shot.
“That wasn’t the (play) call,” Monk said. “I was supposed to throw the ball to Bam. But I got a clean look. When I get a clean look, I pretty much have confidence no matter what’s happened before.”
Overall, Monk’s shooting still wasn’t stellar — 3-of-10, 2-of-5 on three-pointers.
But his final line included 14 points (6-of-6 free throws), four assists and two blocked shots.
“Today, (Monk) showed that scoring isn’t all he does,” Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “He times it right to block that shot. Then he got fouled and knocked down the free throws. He was good for us tonight.”
So Kentucky broke Wichita State hearts again. The Cats’ season is still alive.
One big reason was the all-around game of Malik Monk.
“I made a big-time shot. Made a couple of free throws. Made a big-time block,” he said. “I just found a way to help my team win.”