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The greatest single-game performance by a freshman in the storied history of Kentucky basketball ended Saturday night in the most fitting possible way.
It finished with Malik Monk sinking a shot they’ll be talking about for years in Lexington.
With sixth-ranked Kentucky trailing seventh-ranked North Carolina by two and less than 30 seconds to go, De’Aaron Fox sped up the floor in transition and whipped a pass to Monk spotted up on the left wing. Monk pump faked, caught Tar Heels forward Isaiah Hicks flat-footed and elevated over him for the game-winning 3-pointer in Kentucky’s 103-100 victory.
Monk’s late heroics were the maraschino cherry on top of a scintillating scoring barrage already destined for the Kentucky record books. His 47 points smashed Kentucky’s single-game freshman scoring record, exceeding the 35 that Terrence Jones tallied in 2011 and Jamaal Murray matched last season.
Every weapon in Monk’s arsenal was on display Saturday, from spot-up 3-pointers, to pull-up mid-range jumpers, to his ability to finish through contact at the rim. The 6-foot-3 wing sank 18 of 28 field goal attempts and 8 of 12 threes en route to the highest-scoring performance by any Division I player so far this season.
While Monk has topped 20 points in seven of Kentucky’s 11 games so far this season, this was by far his finest performance. It was a reminder of why he was hailed as the most lethal scorer in the 2016 class and why many fans in his native Arkansas were crushed when he spurned the hometown Razorbacks to play for John Calipari instead.
Fueled by Monk’s ridiculous onslaught, Kentucky won a riveting, high-level game that could be as good as anything college basketball produces until March. Both teams well over 50 percent from the field, both teams sank more than half their 3-pointers and both teams left feeling good about their chances of perhaps seeing one-another a second time in Glendale, Arizona the first week of April.
This was a slightly more important game for Kentucky than North Carolina if only because of the remaining schedule for both teams.
Whereas the Tar Heels have ample remaining chances for marquee wins in the loaded ACC, the comparative weakness of the SEC forces the Wildcats to prove themselves worthy of a potential No. 1 seed in non-conference play. Kentucky had already fallen at home to UCLA earlier this month, leaving Saturday’s matchup with North Carolina and future dates with Louisville and Kansas as their best chances to topple a fellow elite team.
The Wildcats needed every one of Monk’s baskets to hold off a determined North Carolina squad that rallied from a 12-point first-half deficit and from 10 down with less than eight minutes to play. Junior forward Justin Jackson led the comeback, scoring 34 points including a go-ahead driving layup in the final minute that preceded Monk’s game-winning 3-pointer.
What had to be frustrating for North Carolina was its inability to get Jackson or co-star Joel Berry a shot on its biggest possession of the game. The Tar Heels instead went to Hicks on the possession after Monk’s 3-pointer, and the senior forward could not convert. Then after a pair of free throws by Fox, Kenny Williams missed a last-gasp corner 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal North Carolina’s fate.
In the end, all North Carolina could do was tip its hat to Monk, an elite scorer who proved unguardable from start to finish.
Never was that more apparent than late in the first half When Monk faked as though he was going up for a jump shot and Berry leapt at him with his arm outstretched and barrelled right into him.
You could hardly blame Berry for his exuberance. Tackling Monk was just about the only way to prevent him from scoring.
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