NCAA Tournament 2017: Kentucky's fresh approach to last-minute defense leads to Sweet 16

INDIANAPOLIS — The third-best defensive play executed by Kentucky in the final minute of its NCAA Tournament victory over Wichita State was the work of senior guard Dominique Hawkins. He will get little credit for it elsewhere, because essentially he did nothing. Hawkins did not steal the ball, reject a shot or even force a miss. But doing nothing included not fouling. And not fouling was enormous.

The two best defensive plays of the final minute were the work of freshmen: guard Malik Monk and center Bam Adebayo. That is not how it is supposed to be in the NCAA Tournament, but that is how it has to be with the Kentucky Wildcats.

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“I’m really proud of the guys. Hard game to play,” coach John Calipari said from the press-conference platform following No. 2 seed Kentucky’s 65-62 victory over the 10th-seeded Shockers. “These 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.”

As Wichita State tried to conjure a game-tying 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds, Hawkins was defending Shockers point guard Landry Shamet, who had 20 points and nailed a 3-pointer that made this a one-possession game inside the final minute. With time nearly expired, Hawkins saw that Shamet was preparing to shoot, but Shamet executed a pump-fake that got Hawkins into the air — and Hawkins contorted his body so that he did not crash into Hawkins while landing.

So maybe it’s wrong to say Hawkins did nothing.

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“I was thinking he was going to pump-fake the whole time,” Hawkins said. “As soon as he pump-faked, I jumped but tried to jump away from him so I wouldn’t foul him. I jumped kind of backwards so he wouldn’t lean into me.

“I had no idea Bam was beside me, but I’m so glad he was.”

Adebayo executed the best defensive play of that sequence by surging forward as Shamet reloaded to shoot and swatting the Shockers into the offseason. He had to avoid Hawkins to get into the play, because colliding with him might have created a foul and it certainly would have impeded a block attempt. Even though he is 6-10, 260 pounds, Adebayo was nimble enough to get this done. It was Adebayo’s 54th block. It would be a stretch to say this is a specialty, but he has become a presence.

“The ball came to my side,” Adebayo said. “He pump-faked Dom, so I had to help my teammate. As soon as he went to jump, I blocked it.”

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Bam Adebayo blocks Landry Shamet's jumper. (Getty Images)

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This is a different sort of too-young Kentucky team than most of those that preceded it during Calipari’s tenure. This team is not as talented as 2012’s, is not as volatile as 2014's, is not as tall as nearly any of them. But there’s a toughness here that is underappreciated. These 'Cats have survived more battles than it seems all of their predecessors combined did. They get into these battles because of their limitations, but they escape them because of their resilience. They have won their past five two-possession/OT games and 13 games in a row overall.

“We don’t have a go-to person down the stretch because we’ve got multiple guys that can get it done,” gifted point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “If it’s my turn, I do it. Malik hit a big 3 off the dribble, and he knocked down clutch free throws. Whoever’s hands the ball ends up in, that’s who does it.”

They shared the collective responsibility of preventing the Shockers from scoring in the final 80 seconds after allowing a lead that stood at seven points with 4:09 left and five points with 2:10 left to dwindle all the way to a single point when Shamet, Wichita State’s sublime redshirt freshman point guard, hit a 3-pointer with 55 seconds remaining.

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After the Wildcats (31-5) attempted to cram two possessions into what remained of the game but misspent the first attempt on a baseline floater by Monk, Wichita worked 27 seconds toward what became a 3-point attempt from wing Markis McDuffie. It might not have been the primary option on the play, because McDuffie had missed four of his five shots from long range. That couldn’t have eased the fears of any Kentucky fans as he rose to fire.

It was at that point that perhaps the unlikeliest of all Wildcats made the second-best defensive play of the final minute but perhaps the most important of all. Monk acknowledged afterward that college basketball has been different for him. “I never played defense before. Never had to play defense,” he said.

Listed at 6-3 but seemingly a lot taller when he leaps, Monk rose in tandem with McDuffie and forced his hand onto the ball as it still was in the shooter’s palm.

“I timed it perfectly,” Monk said. “As soon as he picked it up, I knew he was going to shoot. I timed it well, and I jumped with him. I was able to get the block.”

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Wichita State is exactly the sort of maddening opponent that gave Kentucky trouble during the SEC regular season: well-coached, defense-oriented, guard-the-lane-like-it's-cash-money. If you think about it, there are many similarities between the Shockers’ style and the way early Calipari teams functioned.

To an extent, Georgia did this three times to the Wildcats. But UK survived each of those games. They shot 41.8 percent but escaped the Shockers (31-5).

“We’ve been in games like this, and we’ve been able to close out,” Fox said. “So I don’t think it’s a surprise we closed this one out. I feel like we could have played much better, but if you’re not on you’re a game, just do the little things.

“Everyone just expects us to score 90 points every game, and that’s just not realistic.”

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