No. 1 seed North Carolina outlasts No. 2 seed Kentucky to advance to the Final Four

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Luke Maye buried the game-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds left to help North Carolina advance to its second consecutive Final Four as the No. 1 seed Tar Heels outlasted No. 2 seed Kentucky, 75-73, during Sunday’s South Regional final in Memphis.

During the insane final 10 seconds of Sunday’s game, Kentucky freshman guard Malik Monk tied the game at 73-all with a heavily-contested three-pointer at the top of the key, only to see North Carolina’s Theo Pinson take the ensuing possession down the floor to find Maye for the game-winner on the left wing.

A reserve like Maye knocking down one of the biggest shots in North Carolina history is a huge reason the program was able to reach its twentieth Final Four. North Carolina has relied on many different members of its veteran team this season and its the reason the Tar Heels will face No. 3 seed Oregon next weekend in Glendale.

Heading into 2016-17, many were asking how North Carolina was going to replace Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and not showing respect to the returning Tar Heel veterans who helped them to last season’s national-title game.

Many became enamored by Duke’s overall talent level and jaw-dropping freshman class. However, that Blue Devil on-paper greatness never materialized into anything more than a conference-tournament title.

It was easier to talk about Villanova’s chances to repeat or Kentucky’s new crop of All-Americans than it was to jump aboard the North Carolina national championship bandwagon this season. Even Kansas got more preseason national championship hype than North Carolina, and the Jayhawks have had a recent history of exits before the Final Four.

Through all of that, North Carolina has been the steady model of consistency in the ACC this season as they’re seeing a complete rotation of experienced veterans play with total confidence.

Justin Jackson has turned into a lock first-round pick and one of the country’s most lethal scorers on the wing, while junior point guard Joel Berry II is a premier floor leader on both ends. Last season’s interior depth that was a huge plus for the Tar Heels has remained even with Johnson’s departure. Seniors Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have both played in a lot of important games, while reserves like Maye and freshman Tony Bradley have contributed valuable minutes this season.

Even after the Tar Heels won the deepest league in the country by two full games during the regular season, it felt like other teams were getting more national title love since North Carolina exited the ACC Tournament early. The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was a bloodbath for the ACC that saw the league lose eight of its nine teams before the Sweet 16. North Carolina was just rounding into form to make another potential run at a title.

Who would have envisioned that North Carolina would be the favorite for the national championship entering Final Four weekend at any point this season? That’s what we’re looking at as we move to Glendale next week, and there were plenty of warning signs about this team’s greatness and ability to handle adversity during Sunday’s win over Kentucky.

North Carolina fans panicked in the first half when Berry went to the locker room to deal with a lingering ankle issue. The Tar Heels were able to withstand until Berry’s return later in the first half as reserves like Maye, Nate Britt, Stillman White and Bradley contributed enough to keep a lead in Berry’s absence.

Finding themselves down by five points late in the second half as Kentucky had all of the momentum, North Carolina’s offense didn’t resort to rushing into bad shots. Just like the Arkansas game in the second round, the Tar Heels regained the advantage in the final minutes by going on a 12-0 run at just the right time.

North Carolina’s defense was also consistently strong on Sunday as Jackson and Pinson were both standouts as perimeter defenders. After seeing Monk and fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox combine for 71 points during Kentucky’s December win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, Jackson helped contain Monk to 12 points on Sunday while Fox was limited to 13 points.

In the most important game of the season, the Tar Heels overcame their starting point guard not playing at 100 percent and rallied in the final five minutes to win against a top-10 team.

That being said, there are plenty of storylines to follow in the Final Four that are going to be more fun to track than the Tar Heels returning for a second straight year.

America loves the underdog story of No. 7 seed South Carolina. Gonzaga making it to the Final Four for the first time is another intriguing subplot. Oregon making the Final Four from the west coast means there are two teams trying to break the region’s title-less streak that has been around since 1997.

But it would be foolish to, once again, overlook North Carolina and everything they’ve accomplished to reach this point. Even Sunday’s hero, Luke Maye, went from being a player that Roy Williams wanted to be a walk-on to now having his own “Maye Madness” nickname.

Williams made the mistake of undervaluing his own player and it almost came back to bite him. It’s the same lesson America should apply when appreciating everything that North Carolina has done during back-to-back memorable seasons.

No. 2 Kentucky outlasts No. 10 Wichita State in another classic NCAA Tournament slugfest

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INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky and Wichita State engaged in another classic NCAA Tournament slugfest on Sunday as the No. 2 seed Wildcats pulled off a 65-62 win over the No. 10 seed Shockers in the second round of the South Region.

Down by one point with under one minute left, Wichita State’s potential go-ahead bucket was erased by Malik Monk’s key block as he made two free throws after getting fouled to give Kentucky a three-point lead. On the final possession for the Shockers, freshman Landry Shamet had his tying three-pointer blocked by freshman Bam Adebayo to seal the Wildcat win.

Although Kentucky has been a team dominated by talented freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Monk for much of the season, Wichita State had no answer for Adebayo on the interior as he finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

The Wildcats (31-5) advanced to the Sweet 16 for the sixth time in head coach John Calipari’s eight seasons as Fox added 14 points and Monk also chipped in 14 points and four assists.

Wichita State (31-5) saw another postseason run end at the hands of Kentucky as this was a rematch of a legendary second-round tilt from the 2014 NCAA Tournament that saw the No. 1 seed Shockers lose their unbeaten season to the Wildcats.

The Shockers did everything they could to stay in the game but ultimately couldn’t do enough to get over the hump. Shamet led Wichita State with 20 points, 18 of which came in the second half, while Shaquille Morris added 11 points.

Kentucky advances to face the winner of No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 6 seed Cincinnati next week in Memphis. If the Wildcats play the Bruins, it will be a rematch of a game we saw during the regular season at Rupp Arena as UCLA came away with the road win.

Kentucky blows out Arkansas to claim SEC Tournament title

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Kentucky continued to look like one of the hottest teams in the country entering the NCAA tournament as the Wildcats rolled past Arkansas, 82-65, on Sunday afternoon to claim the SEC Tournament title.

Claiming the autobid from the SEC, the Wildcats (29-5) looked every bit like a national championship contender on Sunday as they extended their winning streak to 11 games by thoroughly outplaying Arkansas.

Continuing his strong recent play, freshman De’Aaron Fox paced Kentucky with 18 points while freshmen Bam Adebayo and Malik Monk had 17 points each. Senior Dominique Hawkins added 14 points as well in some solid bench minutes for Kentucky. A likely No. 2 seed in the 2017 NCAA tournament, Kentucky is going to be the type of team that no No. 1 seed wants to see on the other side of the bracket.

Playing as well as they have all season, Kentucky is getting great recent play from Fox and we know what Monk is capable of if he gets rolling. If Fox and Monk are playing this well then they have a chance to help carry Kentucky to a title as long as players like Adebayo and Derek Willis keep contributing in the front court.

Arkansas (25-9) was led by guard Daryl Macon with 18 points while Dusty Hannahs (14 points) and Jaylen Barford (13 points) also finished in double-figures. The Razorbacks tried to stay in this one but it was tough to mount any kind of momentum thanks to shooting only 22 percent (4-for-18) from three-point range.

Things got dicey in the final minutes for the Razorbacks in this one as senior Moses Kingsley was ejected with a flagrant 2 foul after aggressively fouling Fox with multiple hands to the face as he drove to the basket.

We’ll likely see the committee put Arkansas as an 8-through-11 seed as the Razorbacks have been playing pretty solid down the stretch but this was not a great effort against an elite team. While Arkansas could win their first game, it is difficult seeing them beating a top-tier team in the second round since they don’t have a top-25 win all season.

No. 9 Kentucky rallies to take down Texas A&M

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Kentucky looked like they might get blown out after a sluggish start but the No. 9 Wildcats rallied on Saturday for a 71-63 SEC road win over Texas A&M. The win helped Kentucky capture the outright SEC regular-season title.

Trailing 16-2 to start the game, the Wildcats once again got off to a slow start but they were able to overcome the deficit with a balanced effort.

The Wildcats (26-5, 16-2) have found themselves in compromising situations before during this season and freshman guard Malik Monk’s ability to turn into a supernova and score double-figure points in the blink of an eye has helped Kentucky rally when they were behind.

That version of Monk never showed up on Saturday

Monk only finished with six points on 2-for-10 shooting as he couldn’t get going on offense. So Kentucky, instead, relied on their defense and a balanced offensive effort to climb back into the game as they were able to establish control for the second half.

Freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox paced Kentucky with 19 points — 15 of which came in the second half — as he did a nice job of attacking the basket and staying aggressive on offense. Bam Adebayo (13 points) and Derek Willis (11 points) also finished in double-figures for the Wildcats. Kentucky only finished 29 percent (7-for-24) from three-point range, but with a slower tempo that minimized possessions, it didn’t hurt them as much as a typical game.

Texas A&M (16-14, 8-10) got off to a strong start when they were able to get things done on the interior but their lack of perimeter shooting really hurt them in the end. The Aggies were only 5-for-18 from the perimeter (27 percent) as they couldn’t get much going after the hot start.

Guard Admon Gilder finished with a team-high 22 points while Robert Williams was another bright spot for Texas A&M with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

De’Aaron Fox out for Kentucky against Florida

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Starting freshman guard De’Aaron Fox will be out for Kentucky on Saturday as the Wildcats host Florida in an important SEC showdown.

The 6-foot-3 Fox has a knee contusion, and without him, the Wildcats will start senior Mychael Mulder. Fox is averaging 15.5 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game as he’s been one of the country’s best two-way freshmen this season.

Kentucky and Florida both enter Saturday’s game at 13-2 in SEC play but the Gators took the first matchup by 22 points between these two teams in Gainesville on Feb. 4.

No. 15 Kentucky takes down Alabama

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Kentucky survived foul trouble and a late Alabama rally as the No. 15 Wildcats held on for a 67-58 SEC road win on Saturday afternoon.

Coming off of a recent sluggish stretch that included a blowout loss at Florida and a poor defensive effort in a home win over LSU, the Wildcats (20-5, 10-2) had an impressive early surge to build a lead as big as 18 as they led by double-digits for much of the game.

Things started to turn when Kentucky freshman big man Bam Adebayo (14 points, seven rebounds) fouled out with a little over six minutes left, giving the Crimson Tide a sliver of hope. Alabama cut it to within six with under two minutes left but sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (11 points, 11 rebounds) made a lot of key buckets down the stretch to keep the Crimson Tide down.

Freshman Malik Monk (17 points) had a so-so shooting game but ended up with 14 points while senior Derek Willis had a key three-pointer out of a timeout with just over a minute left to effectively seal the game.

Kentucky only shot 21 percent from three-point range but their defense looked way better than recent performances as they closed out harder on shooters and helped force 16 Alabama turnovers.

Alabama (14-9, 7-4) shot themselves in the foot with a lot of missed free throws and turnovers as they did everything they could to dig out of the early hole. The slower tempo certainly helped the Crimson Tide but shooting 9-for-26 from the free-throw line is going to kill you.

Braxton Key led the Crimson Tide with 21 points while Dazon Ingram added 12 points. Alabama lost this hard-fought battle to Kentucky, but they played hard in front of a sold-out crowd that got to see some of this team’s young talent.