Point guard De’Aaron Fox refused an invitation to say the referees contributed to Kentucky’s 75-73 loss to North Carolina on Sunday in the NCAA Tournament South Region finals.
“I’m not blaming the officials, man . . . ,” he said. “We’ve been in foul trouble before. We’ve won games when we were in foul trouble. It’s tougher playing a team like North Carolina, and doing it. But we had a chance to win.”
By inference, UK Coach John Calipari came closer to saying the officials hindered his team.
“You know, it’s amazing that we were in that game when they practically fouled out my team,” he said in an opening comment in his postgame news conference. “Amazing that we had a chance.”
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Foul trouble hindered UK, which never led in the first half. Four starters picked up two fouls, which limited their playing time.
Although UK fans booed the referees off the court at halftime, the Cats contributed to their own limited playing time because of fouls.
Fox, the hero of Friday’s semifinal victory over UCLA, committed fouls on back-to-back possessions against little-used Stilman White, who had scored only 36 points all season (or three less than Fox scored against UCLA).
On the first, Fox tried to take a charge against White and was called for blocking. Seconds later, he got called for a foul while trying to steal the ball from White in front of the UK bench. Fox went to the bench with 12:23 left and did not return until the closing seconds of the half.
“First one, I felt I took a charge,” Fox said. “I thought I beat him there. But the ref disagreed.
“The second one, I thought I had all ball. But he called it (a foul).”
Bam Adebayo, who missed an early dunk, picked up his second foul on a reach against a driving Theo Pinson with 6:16 left.
Malik Monk got his second foul barely a minute later (5:02) when he grabbed the jersey of Justin Jackson as the UNC player began a curl.
“I told (the players) at halftime, it is what it is,” Calipari said. “And you’ve got to beat who’s out there. And let’s go, and don’t worry about it.”
Four fouls limited Derek Willis to 21 minutes.
“But,” Calipari added, “don’t take away from North Carolina.”
North Carolina came into the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in rebound margin: Plus 13.1.
The Tar Heels out-rebounded Kentucky 44-34.
UK held its own against the teams ranked first or second in rebounding margin during the regular season. The Cats out-rebounded North Carolina 39-35 in Las Vegas, and got out-rebounded by Wichita State 38-36 last weekend.
UNC will go into the Final Four having been out-rebounded only three times this season. UNC has had 20 or more second-chance points in 16 games. The Tar Heels had 17 second-chance points against UK on Sunday.
Isaac Humphries and De’Aaron Fox made the All-South Region team.
Joining the two UK players were three Tar Heels: Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II and Luke Maye.
Maye was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player. His 17 points against Kentucky included the game-winning shot.
Against Butler in Friday’s semifinals, he had a double-double: 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Maye became the fourth player since 1985 to make a last-second shot to send his team to the Final Four. Surely UK fans remember one of the other three.
Duke’s Christian Laettner hit game-winning shots in the Elite Eight in 1990 (against UConn) and 1992 (against Kentucky). Scottie Reynolds of Villanova made a game-winner against Pittsburgh in 2009.
Going into Sunday, the SEC had a 10-2 record in this NCAA Tournament. The league hadn’t had three teams in the Elite Eight since 1986 (Kentucky, Auburn and LSU). That was the season UK had to beat Alabama for a fourth time to get to play LSU for a fourth time in the Elite Eight. LSU won to advance to the Final Four.
Neither Kentucky nor Florida reached what would have been its program’s fifth Final Four in this century. North Carolina advanced to its sixth in that time.
In terms of Final Four appearances this century, UK and Florida remained tied with Kansas and Duke with four.
Here’s another Final Four fact: This year’s Final Four will be the first to have two participating teams from the Pacific Time Zone. Oregon and Gonzaga won in the Elite Eight on Saturday.
Overall, North Carolina advanced to its 20th Final Four, the most of any program.
▪ North Carolina is the only school in the country with 10 or more victories and a winning record against Kentucky. The Tar Heels improved to 24-15 against UK.
▪ The streak of Kentucky victories in which Humphries scores ended. UK won the previous 24 games in which Humphries scored.