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Three take-aways from Kentucky basketball’s big win over UCLA

Briscoe: We tried to make them take tough twos instead of threes

Kentucky sophomore Isaiah Briscoe talks about the defensive strategy and the play of De'Aaron Fox in win over UCLA.
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Kentucky sophomore Isaiah Briscoe talks about the defensive strategy and the play of De'Aaron Fox in win over UCLA.

Three take-aways from Kentucky’s 86-75 win over UCLA in the South Region semifinal on Friday night at FedExForum:

1. De’Aaron Fox is riding one big glorious wave

De’Aaron Fox could not be stopped. Could. Not. Be. Stopped. All night long.

Kentucky’s ridiculously fast freshman guard scored Kentucky’s first eight points. By halftime, he had scored 15. By game’s end, he had scored a jaw-dropping 39 points.

“He should have had 40, but he missed a couple of free throws,” UK center Bam Adebayo said in the victorious Kentucky locker room. “We told him he was scared of 40.”

No, these days Fox is fearless. Friday night’s breakout performance against the Bruins has been building for a while. Since the former Houston high school star finally got healthy -- an ankle injury, then illness, then a bruised knee had set him back -- Fox has improved with nearly every game. He was named MVP of the SEC Tournament for a reason.

There also was a reason why many people, including yours truly, opined that for Kentucky to be its best in the postseason, Fox had to be his best. Yes, the Cats need Malik Monk to sink three-pointers. They need Bam Adebayo to grab rebounds. They need Isaiah Briscoe to do the little things and a boost from the three-headed monster that is the seniors. But Fox is the one who makes things go.

And under the bright lights of the FedEx Forum, Fox could not be stopped. The ballyhooed matchup between Fox and UCLA star point guard Lonzo Ball was no contest at all. Ball was just four of 10 from the floor and one of six from three-point range. He did dish eight assists, but he scored just 10 points and turned the ball over four times.

If this was a battle between NBA lottery picks -- Ball said after the game he is indeed going pro -- it’s safe to say Fox made himself some serious money Friday night.

The Kentucky players thought Ball got tired as the game progressed. Dominique Hawkins said he noticed, especially in the second half, that Ball seemed to look to pass instead of score. Kentucky’s game plan was to make him work. And that strategy worked.

Meanwhile, Fox never stopped. He made 13 of 20 shots. He missed his only three-point attempt, but so easily did he get to the rim that he didn’t need to shoot threes. He was 13 of 15 from the foul line. Fox is not one to toot his own horn, but after this performance, he had no choice.

“I thought I played fantastic,” he said.

There was no “thinking” about it.

2. Running UCLA off the three-point line

The Bruins made 10 of 23 three-point shots in that 97-92 win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena. They came into Friday night shooting 52.1 percent as a team and 40.6 percent from three-point range. That was 12th-best in the nation. Bryce Alford was making 43.3 percent of his triples. Ball was at 42 percent. He had made six of 10 in two NCAA Tournament games. Aaron Holiday was shooting 41.4 percent from behind the line.

On Friday night, UCLA was a respectable nine of 23 from beyond the arc, but the Bruins never hurt the Cats with threes. Last Sunday, in a comeback win over Cincinnati, there was a second-half stretch when the Bruins hit three straight bombs to take control of the game. That never happened against Kentucky.

“We just wanted to run them off the three-point line,” said Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe. “We wanted to make them take tough twos.”

They also turned the Bruins over. UCLA shot 52.7 for the game, essentially the Bruins’ season average. But Steve Alford’s club took eight fewer shots than did the Cats. UK was 31 of 63 from the floor, including 10 of 23 from three. (That matched UCLA’s showing in Rupp.) UCLA was 29 of 55 from the floor. The Bruins committed 13 turnovers, however, to just six for Kentucky. That made a difference.

Here’s another difference: UCLA didn’t get as many possessions. In that December game in Rupp, UCLA scored 97 points. It averaged 1.169 points on 83 possessions. On Friday, the Bruins scored 76 points. They averaged 1.133 points but on just 66 possessions.

In November, December and early January, Kentucky was an up-tempo team that didn’t know how to play any other way. It does now. Late in the year and in the SEC Tournament, it learned how to grind games out. It learned how to keep focus through longer possessions. That paid off handsomely Friday night.

3. Here we go again: Kentucky vs. North Carolina for the Final Four

It happened just like this in 2011. The site was Newark. North Carolina was the No. 2 seed. Kentucky was the No. 4 seed. Yet Calipari earned his first Final Four trip at Kentucky with a 75-69 win over the Tar Heels.

Many people have compared this Kentucky team to that 2010-11 Kentucky team. That team was up and down during the conference season but caught fire at the right time. It took a nine-game winning streak into that regional final. This Kentucky team has not had as many ups and downs, but it has caught fire at the right time. It carries a 14-game winning streak, the nation’s longest, into Sunday's game.

Box score from UK’s 86-75 win over UCLA

It was a win this year over North Carolina. You remember that one. Malik Monk scored 47 points. North Carolina’s Justin Jackson scored 34. Kentucky pulled out a 103-100 win over the Tar Heels in Las Vegas in the CBS Sports Classic. Especially for a regular-season game, it was entertaining, epic spectacle in the city that never sleeps.

(John Clay still hasn’t been to Vegas, but UK-UNC didn’t disappoint)

Will Sunday be the same? North Carolina was impressive in its 92-80 win over Butler in Friday’s first game. Joel Berry scored 26 points for the Tar Heels. Jackson added 24. Roy Williams’ club shot 54.4 percent from the floor. Building a 52-36 lead by halftime, the Heels were never really threatened.

Now here we go again. Champions of the ACC, North Carolina is the No. 1 seed. Champions of the SEC, Kentucky is the No. 2 seed. If you’re a college basketball fan, this is just the what you want.

“I’m excited,” Fox said. “Like I can play tomorrow. I can play in an hour if you had to. I’m just ready for that game, but we’re going to enjoy this tonight and we’ll focus on them tomorrow.”

Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17

Date

Opponent

UK

Opp

Dec

Rec

SEC

11/11/16

Stephen F. Austin

87

64

W

1-0

 

11/13/16

Canisius

93

69

W

2-0

 

11/15/16

vs. Michigan State

68

49

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

vs. Arizona 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

Hofstra

96

73

W

9-1

 

12/17/16

vs. North 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

vs. Georgia (SEC)

71

60

W

27-5

 

3/11/17

vs. Alabama (SEC)

79

74

W

28-5

 

3/12/17

vs. Arkansas (sec)

82

65

W

29-5

 

3/17/17

vs. Northern Kentucky (NCAA)

79

70

W

30-5

 

3/19/17

vs. Wichita St (NCAA)

65

62

W

31-5

 

3/24/17

vs. UCLA (NCAA)

86

75

W

32-5

 
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