De’Aaron Fox won the personal point guard battle against Lonzo Ball in convincing fashion, and by doing so led No. 2 seed Kentucky to the Elite Eight with an 86-75 win over No. 3 seed UCLA on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.
Fox, in a rematch from a loss to the Bruins on Dec. 3, had 39 points, the highest of any player in the NCAA Tournament so far this season, to go along with four assists, three rebounds, and two steals. His counterpart, Ball, settled for 10 points off 4-of-10 shooting (1-of-6 from three) with eight assists and four turnovers.
“Well, honestly since the postseason started, I’ve been in attack mode,” Fox told reporters after the game. “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.”
“I think he’s motivated just to win because they beat us the first time, outfought us the first time,” Malik Monk said, downplaying the one-on-one matchup. “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.”
Let’s go back to Dec. 3. It wasn’t a great game from Ball in the first meeting either. But you know what outshined Fox’s 20 points and nine assists? The image of Ball shushing the Rupp Arena crowd. Since then, Ball has been a talking point on seemingly every national sports talk show, even though he’s mostly just a sidenote, attached to some over-the-top proclamation his blowhard father, LaVar, spews out of his mouth.
In a social media driven society, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think teenagers on the Kentucky side are aware of the nationwide attention the UCLA floor general has received. It was clear from the start that this was personal. And boy, did De’Aaron Fox pick the right time to have the best game of what will be his short college career. And he should be the top story until the first of four teams cut down the nets on Saturday evening.
Against a UCLA team that has run teams out of the gym all season long, Fox maintained a pace that led Kentucky to good looks on offense, and more importantly, kept the Bruins out of transition. Kentucky committed six turnovers on the night, only one in the second half. He was all over the court, a factor on offense and defense.
His increased scoring production — he’s been the Wildcats’ leading scorer in the last seven games — gave them 46-43 lead at the break behind his 15 first half points. That aided the woes of Monk, Kentucky’s other star freshman guard. Monk didn’t score until 7:40 remaining in the first half. He did knock down shots in the final minutes of the half, before scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half.
Fox outplayed Ball on Friday night. He still may hear his named called after Lonzo’s in June at the NBA Draft, but he has a chance to do what Ball can’t: reach a Final Four. And that’s a statement even LaVar can’t refute.
The Elite Eight is set for another rematch. Kentucky will play top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday night. On Dec. 17, the Wildcats defeated the Tar Heels, 103-100, in a game where Monk, dropped 47 points.