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De'Aaron Fox upstages Lonzo Ball, powers Kentucky to the Elite Eight

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The insipid debate over whether Lonzo Ball is better than Steph Curry ended abruptly on Friday night when it became clear the heralded UCLA freshman may not even be college basketball’s premier point guard.

Fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox staked his claim to that title with a performance for the ages in second-seeded Kentucky’s 86-75 Sweet 16 victory over the Bruins.

Unquestionably the fastest point guard in college basketball, Fox erupted for a career-best 39 points by blowing past flat-footed UCLA defenders off the dribble over and over and finishing with ease around the rim. Fox sank 13 of 20 field-goal attempts and 13 of 15 free throws to lead the Wildcats to the Elite Eight for the sixth time in John Calipari’s eight-year tenure.

In a halftime interview with CBS, UCLA coach Steve Alford said with a straight face that it was a good sign for his team that Fox had only one first-half assist, but that was mostly because UCLA’s suspect defense gave him no reason to pass. The Bruins neither had a guard quick enough to stay in front of him, nor a rim protector capable of altering his shots in the paint.

UCLA and Kentucky played a memorable Sweet 16 game Friday night. (AP)
UCLA and Kentucky played a memorable Sweet 16 game Friday night. (AP)

It’s probably safe to assume Fox drew some motivation from seeing Ball matched up against him from time to time. Ball has received more attention than any other college basketball player the past few months, both because of his own exemplary play and his dad’s absurd bravado.

The player who LaVar Ball has called better than Curry and “Magic Johnson with a jump shot” did not have his finest game on a big stage Friday night. Even though he whipped some dazzling passes through traffic, threw a pair of pinpoint lobs and knocked down one of his trademark deep jumpers, Ball was quiet in the second half and finished with 10 points and eight assists .

The deft passing of Ball, the outside shooting of Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton and the versatile scoring of T.J. Leaf kept UCLA competitive into the second half, but the Bruins’ prolific offense was never dialed-in enough to make up for their swiss-cheese defense. They were within five with eight minutes to go but surrendered a quick 8-0 run and never mounted much of a charge after that.

Kentucky’s victory avenged a 97-92 home loss to UCLA in December. Having now eliminated powerful Wichita State and UCLA, the Wildcats will continue their South Region gauntlet with a rematch against North Carolina in the Elite Eight on Sunday.

When UCLA collapsed on Fox, Isaiah Briscoe or Bam Adebayo in the paint, they fed open jump shooters spotted up behind the arc. Malik Monk, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis each hit multiple 3-pointers as the Wildcats shot a blistering 10 for 23 from behind the arc.

Monk wasn’t as consistently unstoppable as Fox, but the 6-foot-3 shooting guard erupted for 15 of his 21 points in one seven-minute stretch. That barrage of jump shots helped the Wildcats open a three-point halftime lead and then expand it to six just four minutes into the second half.

The nagging question with UCLA all season was whether the Bruins’ suspect defense could be competent enough to buttress its record-breaking offense in March.

The answer came swiftly on Friday with every driving layup from Fox and every deep 3-pointer from Monk: Nope, the Bruins weren’t good enough.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!