USA Today Sports’ Nancy Armour recaps wins by North Carolina and Kentucky on Friday in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
USA TODAY Sports
MEMPHIS — No way Kentucky was losing this game. Not if De’Aaron Fox had anything to say about it.
And it wasn’t because of the matchup with Lonzo Ball or because Magic Johnson was in the crowd. Fox has been nursing a grudge against UCLA since the Bruins beat Kentucky in December, and he wanted revenge.
Oh, did he and the Wildcats get it.
Fox came out firing, making his first five shots on his way to a career-high 39 points. He got the best of Ball in the process, too, repeatedly blowing by his fellow freshman phenom when they were matched up in man-to-man coverage.
“He’s motivated just to win because they beat us the first time, outfought us the first time,” said Malik Monk, who scored 14 of his 21 in the second half as Kentucky pulled away from the Bruins for an 86-75 victory.
“He just did not want to lose and we didn’t want to lose either,” Monk added. “So he kept scoring and we kept giving him the ball.”
Kentucky faces top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday for a trip to the Final Four. This will be another rematch, though the Wildcats got the best of the Tar Heels in that one.
No matter. Fox is not likely to be long for the collegiate game, and he’s turned things up as the season has wound down. He’s scored in double figures the last 11 games he’s played — he missed the Feb. 26 game against Florida with a knee injury — and has two or fewer turnovers in five of the last seven games.
But even by that standard, his performance against UCLA was simply otherworldly. Never before had a Kentucky player scored more points in an NCAA tournament game. Never before had a freshman from any school scored more in the tournament.
“He didn’t miss a whole lot of shots tonight, so you’ve got to give credit to him,” UCLA’s Bryce Alford said. “If we had to do it all over again, I don’t know if we’d change our game plan. He was just phenomenal tonight.”
This game was billed as a battle of the bluebloods, the two schools with more national titles than anyone else. UCLA has 11 and Kentucky eight, and you can’t trace the history of the NCAA tournament without going through Westwood and Lexington.
But that’s for the fans, the media and anyone else not on the floor. For Kentucky, this was a statement game, a chance to right its wrong from earlier in the season and prove that it is very much capable of winning it all.
If anyone still needs convincing, then they weren’t paying attention.
Impressive as Fox’s quick start was, even more so was that Kentucky went into halftime with a slim lead despite Monk only beginning to heat up and Bam Adebayo looking completely lost. They were able to do so because of their defense.
The Wildcats limited UCLA to less than 43% shooting in the first half. Though the Bruins were better in the second, they still finished 15 points off their scoring average. If not for a jumper by Bryce Alford with 31 seconds left, it would have been the fewest points this season for UCLA.
“We really picked it up defensively,” Fox said. “That’s why we won, not because of our scoring. That team averages like 90 points a game and we held them to 75. We attribute that to our defense.”
Take a pivotal swing in the second half. Dominique Hawkins stripped Ike Anigbogu only to have Anigbogu get the ball right back and give it to Aaron Holiday. But Hawkins poked it away from Holiday and fed a streaking Fox, who scored on the driving layup and drew the foul.
Fox converted the three-point play to put Kentucky up 55-49, and UCLA was never a serious threat again.
“We got beat by a very, very good team that played very well today,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said.
De’Aaron Fox wasn’t going to have it any other way.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SWEET 16