For the first time all season against Texas A&M on Saturday afternoon, Malik Monk didn’t score in double figures for Kentucky.
And, Kentucky still won by eight to officially seal up their 48th SEC regular season title and the No. 1 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament.
But, without their leading scorer and top projected NBA prospect taking over the game, how did the ‘Cats finish off the regular season with their eighth win in a row and ninth in their last 10 games?
Kentucky got an encouraging team effort with the other eight guys in their nine-man rotation on Saturday in College Station.
You know about De’Aaron Fox and his “I think I’m back” performance, leading the ‘Cats with 19 points (15 in the second half alone) while looking like his early-season self. Isaiah Briscoe was a key entity after a sloppy start with seven points, six rebounds and eight (!) of Kentucky’s 17 total assists in the 71-63 victory.
Here’s a few things that should’ve grabbed some headlines on Saturday with Monk’s having an off night and the ‘Cats heading to Nashville as the favorites to win their third straight SEC Tournament title.
Dominique Hawkins got the ‘Cats going
In the first seven minutes on Saturday (6:59 to be exact), Kentucky trailed by 14 points and looked like a team that simply just didn’t care about what was going on.
Then, Dominique Hawkins lit the fuse that sparked the Kentucky run.
Bam Adebayo eyeballs the rim on this alley oop from Dominique Hawkins. pic.twitter.com/fnmZkUuUsg— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) March 4, 2017
He scored the next five points for Kentucky after Texas A&M’s 16-2 start to the game, which seemingly woke the ‘Cats up. After Hawkins’ steal and score with 12:32 left in the half, Kentucky outscored the Aggies to the under-8 media timeout, 13-6.
The ‘Cats would finish the half from that 16-2 start by scoring 30 of the next 42 points in the contest to take a four-point lead that they would never relinquish.
Hawkins’ numbers are never going to wow you (eight points, three assists, two steals), but he’s reliable and playing good minutes for the ‘Cats down the stretch of the year. He’s the type of unsung hero that can help a good team make a Final Four run.
Derek Willis has earned the starting power forward role
Wenyen Gabriel has scored 13 total points since Feb. 11.
Derek Willis scored 11 points alone on Saturday, continuing his run of good performances. Kentucky head coach John Calipari rolled with Willis as the starting four-man against the Aggies, and it should be a trend that continues.
During the win streak before Saturday (seven games), Willis had made eight of his 10 3-point attempts, got engaged to his girlfriend and averaged 5.9 rebounds per contest. He didn’t have a block in those seven previous wins, but has had six in the last two games alone.
Great defense and block by Derek Willis. pic.twitter.com/20F0pmQuWy— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) March 4, 2017
Like Hawkins (and unlike Kentucky has had in the past), Willis is providing some senior leadership with his play and it’s paying dividends for the ‘Cats.
How good has Bam Adebayo been?
The giant tree of John Calipari’s big men continues to grow by the season and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo is no exception.
Monk had been saving the day in recent games. Fox had his best performance in a long time on Saturday. Briscoe is the glue that keeps this roster together.
But, Adebayo has been an absolute workhorse and it shouldn’t go unnoticed.
In the previous seven wins, Adebayo had been playing like a guy who’s projected to be a first-round pick in June. Since the Florida loss on Feb. 4, Adebayo had been averaging 14 points and 10.3 rebounds per contest, including three double-digit rebounding games against Tennessee, Missouri and Florida.
On Saturday, he matched up with Texas A&M’s massive front that included Robert Williams (another freakish big man) and scored 13 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and blocked two shots.
Bam Adebayo reminding Robert Williams that he's still here. pic.twitter.com/Dom4XfiM8s— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) March 4, 2017
Kentucky did what they needed to do (in more ways than one)
Saturday was arguably Malik Monk’s worst performance of the entire season. Outside of a huge cocked-back dunk off a great defensive play, the front-runner for the SEC Player of the Year award wasn’t really engaged at all.
And that’s exactly what Kentucky needed.
They needed to prove — especially away from home in March — that they could win a game without Malik Monk turning into the Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals version of Michael Jordan.
It was Fox. It was Briscoe. It was Willis. It was Hawkins. It was Adebayo.
It was a collective effort from the ‘Cats, who are three wins away from their 30th SEC Tournament title and a likely 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament.