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Fox scores career-high 39 points to lead Cats past UCLA and into South Region finals

By Keith Taylor
KyForward Senior Sports Writer

MEMPHIS — Kentucky got revenge against UCLA and will have to beat North Carolina for a second time this season to reach the Final Four.

De’Aaron Fox scored career-high 39 points to lead the Wildcats to an 86-75 win over the Bruins Friday night in the South Region semifinals at FedExForum.

Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox gets a hug from Isaiah Briscoe following his 39-point performance in a win over UCLA Friday night (Regina Rickert Photo)

Kentucky (32-5) will take on No. 1 seed North Carolina in the South Region finals at 5:05 p.m. Sunday. The Tar Heels defeated Butler 92-80 in the first of two South Region semifinal games Friday night. The Wildcats edged North Carolina 103-100 in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas earlier this season.

Fox has led Kentucky in scoring in the team’s six postseason games and has established a new career high in two of those contests. He scored 28 in a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal win over Alabama preceding his outing against the Bruins.

“Since the postseason started, I’ve been in attack mode,” Fox said. “My teammates just kept going for me. We came in with a game plan. We knew with their bigs, we weren’t doing pick-and-rolls, and I mean, I just made shots today.”

Fox was also seeking revenge for the team’s earlier-season 97-92 loss to UCLA at Rupp Arena, one of Kentucky’s five losses during the regular season.

“I think he’s motivated just to win because they beat us the first time, outfought us the first time,” Kentucky guard Malik Monk said. “He just did not want to lose, and we did not want to lose, either, so he kept scoring and we kept giving him the ball.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari wasn’t surprised by his point guard’s performance.

“He’s grown, but what he’s learned to do is play physical, not take a hit and fly, and throw a ball,” Calipari said. “He’s learned to play through bumps. He’s learned to work. He’s understood the grind now. It took him a while. They think, well, I’m just going to go play. He shot 15 percent for a while. Like, dude, you can’t miss every single shot. Now all of a sudden, if he’s open, that ball is down. Second thing is he goes to the rim, and I know if he gets hit, he can still make it. Well, early in the season, he wasn’t doing that.”

It marked Calipari’s first return to Memphis in more than eight years. Prior to taking over as coach of the Wildcats, Calipari spent nine seasons at Memphis, where he compiled a 214-68 record. Calipari, who has led Kentucky to the Sweet Sixteen in six of his eight seasons at Kentucky, improved to a perfect 6-0 in regional semifinal games.

The two schools have combined for 19 NCAA championships, with UCLA leading the way with 11, but the Bruins haven’t won title since the 1995 campaign, while the Wildcats have won two championships in the past two decades, the most recent coming during the 2012 campaign. Kentucky is one win away from making a third trip to the Final Four in four years.

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Although history between the two college powerhouses is well-documented, the showdown centered on point guards Fox (Kentucky) and UCLA freshmen phenom Lonza Ball, both projected first-round NBA lottery picks.

Fox scored Kentucky’s first eight points and led all scorers with 15 in the first half. Ball had just six points in the opening half, while freshman classmate T.J. Leaf carried the load for the Bruins with 13 points. Leaf and Issac Hamilton led the Bruins with 17 points each, followed by Bryce Alford with 13 and Ball with 10.

Monk took over in the second half and scored 10 of Kentucky’s first 14 points of the half. The spurt by Monk, which included two 3-pointers, helped the Wildcats build a 50-46 lead with 15 minutes remaining and lead that evenually blossomed to double digits.

Monk followed Fox with 21 points, scoring 14 of those in the second half. Kentucky senior and Madison Central graduate Dominique Hawkins sank three 3-pointers and added 11 points off the bench. Hawkins has scored double figures in two of Kentucky’s six postseason games.

The Wildcats offset UCLA’s size in the post with timely shooting, especially from behind the arc. Kentucky made 10 3-pointers to make up for the lack of scoring in the post. Kentucky forward Bam Adebayo, who had tallied double figures in the previous 10 games, finished with just two points against the Bruins. Adebayo didn’t score his first bucket until he threw down a dunk with 3:15 remaining.

The Wildcats sank five 3-pointers in the opening half, including two by Hawkins. Derek Willis, also a senior, played just seven minutes in the opening half and finished with eight points.

Calipari is looking forward to the rematch against the Tar Heels, who finished national runner-up to Villanova a year ago in this same tournament. Calipari said having played North Carolina once this season will prove to be beneficial.

“It helps both teams that we play because we’ll know each other pretty well,” Calipari said. “North Carolina is so good, and they’ve been so good all year. Guard play, size, rebounding, fly, being able to score, Jackson will get 40. He had 40 on us last game we played. Roy (Williams) has done a great job with his team and I’m looking forward to the game just because I like my team, and we’ve got a good group of kids and I’m like jacked up.

“I’ll sleep tonight because I’m getting old and I’m tired, but I’m excited that we’re still doing this with this group of kids.”

Gametracker: Kentucky vs. North Carolina, 5:05 p.m., Sunday. TV/Radio: CBS, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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