1. North Carolina’s experience showed down the stretch
With 5:09 remaining, Kentucky appeared to be headed to Phoenix. The Cats led 64-59. They were on a 10-2 run. They had scored on 12 straight possessions. They had the momentum. They had the crowd backing. They appeared to be in control. But they couldn’t close the deal.
The next six possessions, John Calipari’s team failed to score. Isaac Humphries, who had just scored eight points in 2:45, missed a jumper from the right baseline. Bam Adebayo had his shot blocked by Kennedy Meeks. De’Aaron Fox missed a jumper from the circle. Derek Willis missed from the left corner. After a UK timeout, Malik Monk’s pass into the post was picked off. Then Monk missed from the left wing.
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Meanwhile, North Carolina was on a 12-0 run. Unfazed by the five-point deficit, Roy Williams’ team got clutch plays from experienced players: juniors Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson and Joel Berry.
When sophomore Luke Maye hit the winning shot with 0.3 seconds left, he did so off a pass from Pinson, who missed the first UK-UNC game in December because of injury. His heads-up play to get the ball to the open Maye set up the dagger that ended Kentucky’s season.
Meanwhile, senior center Kennedy Meeks grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds as North Carolina won the rebound battle 44-34. Meeks also blocked four shots to go with his seven points. North Carolina’s experience paid off.
2. Malik Monk couldn’t come close to duplicating his epic performance
The pregame speculation had Roy Williams having Pinson guard Monk in hopes of slowing the streaky UK shooter who exploded for 47 points on the Tar Heels in UK’s 103-100 win in December in Las Vegas. Instead, Williams went a different direction.
Pinson guarded UK point guard De’Aaron Fox, who had scored 39 points against UCLA on Friday night. Joel Berry, who you would expect to guard Fox, instead took UK guard Isaiah Briscoe. And Justin Jackson, the 6-8 junior from Tomball, Texas, who had scored 34 points in the first meeting, guarded Monk most of the time in the second.
“He did a great job,” Monk admitted afterward. “Whoever guarded me did a great job.”
This time, Monk ended just just 4 for 10 from the floor and 3 for 6 from three. He finished with just 12 points, a 35-point decrease from December. Not that anyone should have expected a duplicate performance. Still, the Cats could have used more points from the SEC’s scoring leader.
Worst of all, Monk went scoreless from the 4:29 mark of the first half until there was just 38.5 seconds left in the game. That’s 24 minutes. He finally ended the drought with a three-pointer to pull UK within one, 71-70. He followed with another clutch three with 7.2 seconds left to tie the game at 73-73.
It wasn’t enough, however. And at times, Monk appeared to be lost defensively. He committed just one turnover, but that was a costly one when he turned down a shot and tried to work the ball inside with a pass that was instead intercepted.
Meanwhile, his backcourt running mate, De’Aaron Fox, picked up two early fouls and ended up playing just eight minutes in the first half. Fox finished with 13 points and three assists, a far cry from his 39-point explosion in Friday night’s win over UCLA.
Had it not been for Dominique Hawkins with 10 points in the first half and Isaac Humphries with eight in the second, the Cats wouldn't have been in it at the end.
3. Starting it all over again next season
On the one hand, it’s always hard to stamp a season that ends in the Elite Eight a disappointment. Kentucky finished 32-6, its 14-game win streak snapped. It lost to the South Region’s No. 1 seed, the ACC champ, the team that lost on a last-second shot in last season’s national championship game.
On the other hand, as has been the case since John Calipari arrived on campus, Kentucky will start all over again next season. Despite their noncommittal answers after the game, there’s no doubt Monk, Fox, Adebayo and Isaiah Briscoe will head to the NBA draft. Hawkins, Willis and Mychal Mulder will graduate. The turnover continues.
In eight seasons, Calipari has won a national title and has been to two national title games, four Final Fours and six Elite Eights. That’s a record that’s hard to knock, although there will be disappointed Kentucky fans who will try.
Meanwhile, on to next season. And a whole new cast.
Kentucky-North Carolina last 10 meetings