By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Malik Monk gained a reputation as a scorer. He may end the season as Kentucky’s best defender.
Mired in a shooting slump since the postseason began, Monk has found other ways to contribute, especially on defense and it was his block on Wichita State’s Markis McDuffie’s 3-pointer with 13 seconds remaining that enabled the second-seeded Wildcats to escape with an exciting 65-62 victory over the Shockers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky’s final tally was its lowest offensive output of the season, but the late defensive heroics overshadowed the team’s lack of offense and kept the team’s bid for a ninth national championship alive.
The Wildcats (31-5) advance to the South Region semifinals and will take on UCLA at 9:40 p.m. Friday night in Memphis. Kentucky carries a 13-game winning streak into its rematch against the Bruins, who defeated the Wildcats 97-92 on Dec. 3 in Lexington. UCLA defeated Cincinnati 79-67 Sunday night.
“It was a hard game to play,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They really grind it out.”
Although a surprise to many, Monk’s rejection during a critical moment in the nip-and-tuck encounter was no surprise to his teammates. Bam Adebayo also had a key block as time ran out on what would have been a game-tying three-point attempt.
“We know Malik can play defense,” Kentucky senior Dominique Hawkins said. “We see it in practice all of the time. For him to make that play, it lets everybody know that he plays defense. He made a big play for us and that’s why we won that game.”
Although an uncommon move for Monk, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year was “playing just straight-up defense” when it mattered the most.
“We knew we couldn’t foul,” he said. “We knew they were going to shoot a three. (I) just played solid and contested well.”
Calipari lauded the play by Monk and said his shooting guard is on the brink of an offensive breakout.
“It’s great to have Malik back,” the Kentucky coach said. “I haven’t seen him for a while. He’s on that path, not all the way back, but he’s on the path we need him on.”
Minutes after Monk’s heroic play on defense, Adebayo put an exclamation point on the narrow victory when he rejected Landry Shamet’s 3-point heave at the buzzer. The two last-minute defensive stands came three years after the Wildcats ended Wichita State’s perfect season with a 78-67 victory in an NCAA second-round contest in St. Louis and this finish was equally exciting.
Adebayo’s block was pivotal, but so was his point production in a game that featured five ties and 11 lead changes, not to mention several tense moments in the final five minutes. The Wildcats also nearly lost a seven-point lead late in the second half and shot just 42 percent from the field.
“We were just playing defense,” Adebayo said. “He pumped faked and I knew he was going to to shoot it, so I just went up and tried to block it.”
Adebayo, who has started all 36 games this season, posted his eighth double-double and third in the past five games with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Monk and teammate Isaiah Briscoe led Kentucky with 14 points each.
For Wichita State, the Shockers finished the season at 31-5 and eyeing more respect in the postseason. The Shockers entered the the tournament as a No. 10 seed and will use the placement as motivation in the off-season.
“This will be just more fuel for us,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “This will be a three-point loss to Kentucky, a No. 2 seed. We know we can play better.”
So do the Wildcats.
“We’re still on the incline, but we still haven’t peaked yet,” Kentucky senior Derek Willis said. “We dug down and gritted it out.”
Sometimes that’s all it takes to keep dancing on the the big stage.
Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter