John Calipari does not like to put the onus on a player. But the Kentucky coach made an exception before the NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals Friday.
Calipari said Kentucky needed Malik Monk to come out of his recent shooting slump.
“I told him, you’ve got to get 20 a game, somehow,” Calipari said. “I don’t care how you get it.”
A second-half flurry got it for Monk, who scored 14 of his 21 points after halftime.
With fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox scoring a career-high 39 points, Kentucky defeated UCLA 86-75 to advance to Sunday’s South Region finals. UK will play North Carolina, which beat Butler 92-80 in the first semifinal.
Sunday’s finals will begin at 5:05 p.m. EDT.
“I think I played fantastic, but I’m just giving credit to my team,” Fox said. “I think I scored the first eight points. There was a timeout. They were like ‘Just keep doing what you are doing.’”
In addition to the offensive pyrotechnics by Monk and Fox, a palpable effort to defend got UK within a game of its fifth Final Four in the last seven years.
UCLA, which led the nation in scoring (90.2 points per game) and shooting (52.1 percent), equaled its second-lowest point total of the season.
“Great defense,” said Isaiah Briscoe, not an easy man to please. “Everybody was talking. Everybody was in tune. We were out here focusing on defense, and it showed.”
Briscoe cited the regular-season loss to the Bruins as inspiration. “We obviously had a chip on our shoulder, them beating us. We just wanted to get the rematch.”
Monk contributed four of the 10 three-pointers Kentucky made. It was the most threes he’d made in a month (five against Florida on Feb. 25), and only the six time the Cats reached double figures this season.
Associate Coach Kenny Payne cited more decisive play for Monk’s breakout.
“Every defense is setting up for him,” Payne said of Monk. “And that’s hard. That’s hard. You catch it. You hold it. You try to assess. And the whole team is coming your way.
“But if the ball moves, it hits your hands and you go right away, you’re at the advantage.”
UK (32-5) needed perimeter scoring because big man Bam Adebayo never got going offensively. With UCLA tilting its defense toward him, Adebayo did not score until a dunk with 3:15 remaining. But he contributed a career-high five assists.
The first half failed to confirm pregame expectations of fast-paced play filled with material suitable for highlight reels.
Defense — and perhaps jitters produced by a highly-anticipated rematch — ruled in the opening 20 minutes.
UK led 36-33 at intermission as neither the Cats (41 points) nor the Bruins (43.5) reached their seasonal averages for first-half scoring. In the regular-season game, UCLA led 49-45 at the break.
The combined fast-break points could almost be counted on one hand (UCLA four, UK two).
“Our motto was we don’t want this to be an offensive game for both teams,” Payne said. “We wanted it to be an offensive game for us. … We played a great defensive game.”
Fox and Leaf monopolized the scoring for their teams in 20 minutes that had more move-counter move than watch-this action.
Fox scored Kentucky’s first eight points, and finished the half with 15 (more than he’d scored in 13 of UK’s previous 36 games).
If eager to get the best of Ball, Fox did.
But Leaf countered for UCLA. His 13-point first half included saddling Willis and Gabriel with two fouls each.
For a while, Kentucky countered by playing without a four-man. The Cats tried a twin towers alignment with Isaac Humphries joining Bam Adebayo.
Dominique Hawkins hit a pair of three-pointers, which marked only the fourth time this season he made more than one in a game.
On the down side, Hawkins picked up his third foul with 34.5 seconds left in the half.
That punctuated the give-and-take of the first half.
Mount Monk erupted early in the second half. Monk made four of his first five shots (including two of two from three-point range) and scoring 10 points before the first television timeout.
UCLA did not wilt. But Thomas Welsh picking up his fourth foul with 13:39 left did not help the Bruins’ chances.
A three-pointer by Monk with 11:26 left put UK ahead 60-51. That gave him the 20 points Calipari had said Kentucky needed.
Hawkins’ third three-pointer — which tied a career-high he made against Louisville in December 2015 — put the Cats ahead 63-56.
Less than a minute later, a three by Willis made it 66-58. That was UK’s 10th three-pointer, a number Kentucky had reached in only five previous games this season (and not since Valentine’s Day).
Kentucky vs. North Carolina
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional finals
When: 5:05 p.m. Sunday
Where: FedExForum in Memphis
Records: No. 2 seed Kentucky 32-5, No. 1 seed North Carolina 30-7