John Clay

Meet me in Memphis. Kentucky earns a Sweet 16 trip the hard way.

They’re going to Memphis.

Your faith may have wavered here and there, but theirs never did. Your heart might have found its way into your throat just when they were showing theirs. You might have feared this was the end of Kentucky’s basketball season just when they showed their fearlessness.

“Will to win,” said sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe. “Will to win.”

Will is a wonderful thing. So is grit. And toughness, you know, the thing John Calipari loves the most in all the world. It took those things and a little more Sunday afternoon for Kentucky to outlast Wichita State 65-62 in as tense an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament round-of-32 game as you would be lucky enough to find.

By winning, the Cats, now 31-5 and owners of a 13-game winning streak, earned the right to move on to Memphis, where Friday they will play either UCLA or Cincinnati in a semifinal game of the South Region.

To get there, however, they had to survive the rough and tough Shockers, and to do that several Cats had to venture outside themselves and do things they don’t ordinarily do. The team with the glamorous five-star résumés had to show it was indeed tough enough and willing enough to get the job done.

Take Malik Monk, Kentucky’s virtual point machine, the first freshman to lead the SEC in scoring since 1989. Of late, however, Monk’s sweet stroke has betrayed him so Sunday the Arkansas native went all Chris Paul with four assists and — after drilling a three-pointer to give UK a 61-56 lead — the block of a three-point attempt by Wichita State’s Markis McDuffie with less than a minute left in what was anybody’s game.

“The biggest play of the game,” teammate Dominique Hawkins called it.

Take Derek Willis, the senior forward with the sweet three-point stroke. Willis has never been known as a defender, much less an elite defender, yet he made a game-high three steals and one very big blocked shot.

“I did take this game personally,” he said.

Take De’Aaron Fox, the guard with the fleetest of feet who got so upset with himself for missed layups that he started throwing it down, including when he found a sliver of daylight — a sliver being all he needs — for a tomahawk jam and a 63-59 UK lead with 1:25 remaining.

And take Bam Adebayo, who made the Shockers take back all those silly disrespectful things they said Saturday about how Kentucky was nothing special and this three-headed monster they would run at UK’s freshman center all day long.

Instead, Adebayo was the all-day beast, scoring 13 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and on the final play of the game, stepping out to join Hawkins in bottling up Wichita State’s Landry Shamet, whose forced three-pointer, which would have sent the game to overtime, barely made it out of his hands before being rejected by Adebayo.

“I’m just glad we got the ‘W,’” said a smiling Adebayo in the happy UK locker room.

A relieved Big Blue Nation was glad, too. It might not have been able to take a second straight second-round knockout after last year’s loss to border rival Indiana, especially when this year’s team was No. 1 in some preseason polls, No. 1 in the AP poll, and No. 6 in the final poll of the regular season.

The truth of the matter is that in what turned out to be a tougher-than-anticipated SEC schedule, Kentucky learned how to make the tough plays that win close games, the type of tough plays that won Sunday’s game.

“We’ve been able to close out other games and we know that’s something we have to do in March,” said Fox on Sunday. “We’ve proven that we can do it. When it comes up, we’re not nervous because we know what we can do.”

So now it’s on to Memphis, where after being fired by the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, Calipari proved he could coach again during a stellar nine-year run in which he took the hometown Tigers to the NCAA title game in 2008.

Not that Memphis will roll out the welcome mat for their former coach, mind you. There are still bruised feelings over Calipari’s 2009 departure for Kentucky.

That’s OK. Kentucky has a ticket to Memphis. It earned its way.

Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17

11/11/16

Stephen F Austin

87

64

W

1-0

11/13/16

Canisius

93

69

W

2-0

11/15/16

vsMichigan State

69

48

W

3-0

11/20/16

Duquesne

93

59

W

4-0

11/23/16

Cleveland State

101

70

W

5-0

11/25/16

UT-Martin

111

76

W

6-0

11/28/16

vsArizona St

115

69

W

7-0

12/3/16

UCLA

92

97

L

7-1

12/7/16

Valparaiso

87

63

W

8-1

12/11/16

vsHofstra

96

73

W

9-1

12/17/16

vsNorth Carolina

103

100

W

10-1

12/21/16

@Louisville

70

73

L

10-2

12/29/16

@Ole Miss

99

76

W

11-2

1-0

1/3/17

Texas A&M

100

58

W

12-2

2-0

1/7/17

Arkansas

97

71

W

13-2

3-0

1/10/17

@Vanderbilt

87

81

W

14-2

4-0

1/14/17

Auburn

92

72

W

15-2

5-0

1/17/17

@Miss St

88

81

W

16-2

6-0

1/21/17

S Carolina

85

69

W

17-2

7-0

1/24/17

@Tennessee

80

82

L

17-3

7-1

1/28/17

Kansas

73

79

L

17-4

1/31/17

Georgia

90

81

W*

18-4

8-1

2/4/17

@Florida

66

88

L

18-5

8-2

2/7/17

LSU

92

85

W

19-5

9-2

2/11/17

@Alabama

67

58

W

20-5

10-2

2/14/17

Tennessee

83

58

W

21-5

11-2

2/18/17

@Georgia

82

77

W

22-5

12-2

2/21/17

@Missouri

72

62

W

23-5

13-2

2/25/17

Florida

76

66

W

24-5

14-2

2/28/17

Vanderbilt

73

67

W

25-5

15-2

3/4/17

@Texas A&M

71

63

W

26-5

16-2

3/10/17

vsGeorgia (SEC)

71

60

W

27-5

3/11/17

vsAlabama (SEC)

79

74

W

28-5

3/12/17

vsArkansas (sec)

82

65

W

29-5

3/17/17

vsNorthern Kentucky (ncaa)

79

70

W

30-5

3/19/17

vsWichita State (ncaa)

65

62

W

31-5

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