Fox on Fire as Kentucky Basketball Downs UCLA to Reach the Elite Eight

Mar 24, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard De'Aaron Fox (0) shoots a layup against UCLA Bruins forward Ike Anigbogu (13) and center Thomas Welsh (40) in the second half during the semifinals of the South Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 24, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard De'Aaron Fox (0) shoots a layup against UCLA Bruins forward Ike Anigbogu (13) and center Thomas Welsh (40) in the second half during the semifinals of the South Regional of the 2017 NCAA Tournament at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports /

Scoring a career-high 39 points, De’Aron Fox led Kentucky Basketball to a Sweet 16 win over the UCLA Bruins Friday night in Memphis.

The victory earned Kentucky Basketball a spot in the South Regional final Sunday versus North Carolina.

This win was also sweet revenge for the 97-92 loss suffered by the Cats to UCLA in Rupp Arena back in December. There were several key factors that led to Kentucky’s prevailing in this clash between the two teams with the most national championships in history.

First Half Survival

Early on this game was uncomfortably familiar to the December game for UK fans. In the first game, Bruin forward T.J. Leaf dominated the Cats at the 4 position with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Friday night started off with more of the same. Kentucky’s Derek Willis fouled Leaf just nine seconds after the tip. Leaf would go on to score 13 in the first half.

De’Aaron Fox served notice from the start that he was going to have a big night. He scored the Wildcats’ first eight points. It was apparent early that the Bruins couldn’t stay in front of him. He repeatedly drove past UCLA defenders for pull-up jumpers, floaters and layups. Fox had 15 points for the half.

In what has become a recurring theme, Dominique Hawkins came off the bench to give his team a much needed spark. Hawkins had six points on a couple of three pointers. One of those was probably the longest shot he’s hit in his UK career. Bruin coach Steve Alford had a good view as the senior drilled one in from the hash mark right in front of the UCLA bench.

The Bruins were playing their usual efficient game on offense. The game flow had the feel of a comfortable UCLA lead. In addition to Leaf, another thorn in Kentucky’s side in the last couple of meetings with UCLA has been center Thomas Welsh. He did some damage with seven points. But he picked up his second foul with 6:28 remaining. Trailing 26-25, the Cats went on a little 11-7 run in the last 4:30 to take a somewhat surprising 36-33 lead at the break.

Taking Control

Malik Monk has struggled to get his shot to fall for the past several games. His first half Friday was just okay. The freshman scored seven points on three of six from the field and one of two from behind the three point line. After the break, however, the Wildcats’ leading scorer on the season really shook off his slump. He scored 10 straight points at one stretch early in second half. He had 14 of his 21 points for the game in the half.

Kentucky Basketball’s freshman backcourt was truly a dynamic duo this night. Especially during one stretch of a little over seven minutes of game action. In that span, from the late first half to midway through the second, Fox and Monk accounted for 22 straight points by the Cats. They combined for 60 points in the game, 38 in the second half.

Another key sequence came later in the half. The Wildcats appeared on a few occasions to be ready to pull away for good, only to see UCLA rally back in to contention. The Bruins got to within 63-58 with 8:01 to go. But Derek Willis, who had misfired from deep most of the night, drilled a three pointer to extend the lead to eight. That kicked off a 8-0 Kentucky run that put the game away for good. Willis had the last two of those as well.

The Battle Was Won

Down the stretch it the Fabulous Mr. Fox put the game away. He scored 13 of the Cats’ last 15 points, including 9-10 from the free throw line. He emphatically won the much-ballyhooed match up with UCLA’s point guard Lonzo Ball. The Bruins’ star freshman had 10 points and eight assists, but he also had four turnovers. He was 1-6 from three, missing his last five attempts.

Ball and his teammates simply had no answer for Fox, as beat them on the dribble all night long. He was 13-20 from the field and 13-15 from the foul line. He had four assists and only one turnover in 36 minutes. It was the seventh straight game Fox led (or co-led) the Cats in scoring. The latest was one of the finest, and perhaps the best, single game point guard performances in Kentucky Basketball history.

His 39 points were the most ever by a freshman in an NCAA tournament game. It’s the fourth highest by any Wildcat in the NCAA tourney and the best tally since Tayshaun Prince had 41 versus Tulsa in a 2002 second round win.

More Keys to a Huge Win

The defensive transformation of this Kentucky Basketball team is remarkable. Friday night the Bruins did shoot 53% from the field, snapping the Cats’ string of holding teams to 45% or less. But the Wildcats forced 13 turnovers and had a big 14-2 edge in points off turnovers. They also improved at the much discussed 4-spot. The early flurry from Leaf didn’t continue for UCLA, as he only had four points in the second half. You have to give both the players and coaches for the turnaround on the defensive end of the floor in the past few weeks.

Speaking of turnovers, Kentucky only had six for the game, and only ONE turnover in the second half. UCLA is certainly not known for pressure defense, but that kind of ball security this deep in the tournament is a huge advantage. The Wildcat’s point guard must be pretty good, huh?

Bam Adebayo only had two points and four rebounds. He struggled to catch the ball at times as UCLA harassed him with weak-side help anytime the ball went into the post. But he took advantage of that overplay to kick the ball back out and he led the team with five assists. He also got Welsh in foul trouble and the Bruin center fouled out with almost six minutes left, creating another advantage for the Cats.

Next: Ranking The Top 10 Sweet Sixteen Games in Kentucky History

Kentucky Basketball Advances to the Elite Eight

Coming up Sunday at 5:05 PT is about as blue-blooded a regional final as you could imagine. The second-seeded Wildcats face the top-seed North Carolina Tar Heels at the FedEx Forum in Memphis. The Wildcats will be seeking their 18th Final Four appearance. Kentucky defeated UNC in December 103-100 in Las Vegas, led by 47 points from Malik Monk. A repeat of that performance would be just fine for the Wildcat faithful.

Box score courtesy of UK Athletics

Records courtesy of Jon Scott