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Kentucky’s patience and defense lead to the Sweet 16

By Joe Spears

Sports Capital Journalism Program

INDIANAPOLIS — For the second time in four years, the second round of the NCAA Tournament featured a game between John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats and Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State Shockers.

That’s where the similarities end though. Their first matchup featured the Shockers as a No. 1 seed losing by two points to the eighth-seeded Wildcats in a high scoring affair. That game also featured the Shockers getting one last shot to win that bounced off the rim.

This time, everything else was different.

Scoring a season-low point total, the second-seeded Wildcats secured the 65-62 win with back-to-back blocks on Wichita State’s final two possessions. Kentucky (31-5) advanced to a semifinal game against UCLA in the South region. The Shockers (31-5) ended another season with a painful loss to the Wildcats.

Nothing could separate the teams over the first 34 minutes of the game. In a game that featured 11 lead changes and five ties, the largest lead either team could manage was a 7-point lead for the Wildcats with just over four minutes left in the game. That lead would not last long.

Sparked by freshman sensation Landry Shamet, the Shockers went on one final run. Shamet scored five straight points including three huge free throws that cut the Wildcats lead to just two with a little over two minutes left in the game.

“I just tried to stay aggressive and make my open looks and take advantage of whatever opportunity came,” Shamet said. “I didn’t play very well in the first half.”

For every basket the Wildcats made, the Shockers responded with one immediately. Kentucky freshman Malik Monk knocked down a 3-pointer after Shamet’s free throws to push the Wildcats lead back up to five, only for Wichita State junior Zach Brown to connect on one for the Shockers.

Shamet again came up big for the Shockers with just 55 seconds left in the game. Looking like anything but a freshman, Shamet hit another 3-pointer at the top of the arc to cut the Wildcats lead to one.

After a missed Wildcats shot on the opposite end of the court, the Shockers had an opportunity to take the lead with just under 40 seconds remaining in the game. Despite Shamet having the hot hand over the previous four minutes, it was sophomore Markis McDuffie who found the ball in his hands with a chance to take the lead. Just 13 seconds were left on the clock when McDuffie pulled up from deep only to have Monk’s hand waiting there to block his shot.

“I just played straight-up defense,” Monk said “We knew we couldn’t foul. We knew they were going to shoot a 3. Just play solid. I just contested well.”

Kentucky snatched the rebound and went to the line with 10 seconds left in the game. It was Monk who had the block and it was Monk who was headed to the free throw line with an opportunity at a pair free throws. He sunk both.

Ten seconds were all that remained and the Shockers had one more opportunity to send the game into overtime. Instead of fouling on the Shockers possession, Calipari decided to let the situation play out.

“It entered my mind when they messed around with the ball, but I hadn’t said anything,” Calipari said. “When it got down to four, five, I’m thinking we gotta foul. Ten seconds is way too early, too many possessions left. I don’t like it with that time, but these guys guarded it. We knew what we were doing, switching everything and playing high. And if they were going to take something, make it a two.”

The gamble worked. Shamet rose up for the game tying 3-pointer with five seconds left only to find two other hands on the ball. Those hands belonged to Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo, who tipped the shot away as time expired.

“We were just playing defense,” Adebayo said. “He pump faked, and I knew he had to shoot it so I just went up and tried to block it.”

For teams that both averaged 80-plus points per game, this game was vastly different. Wichita State was 2-2 on the season when the Shockers failed to score 70 points and the Wildcats were 1-1. Outdoing their season-low of 66 points in a 22-point loss at Florida, the Wildcats figured out a way to win despite scoring an uncharacteristically low total.

“There guys up here, they’re young, but they have a will to win and play with courage and are skilled basketball players and great kids who share,” Calipari said. “So proud of them.”

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