Malik Monk's second-half explosion halts Florida, gives Kentucky advantage in SEC

The Dagger

The numbers were downright ugly. Three points. One assist. Five turnovers. Zero flow.

No. 11 Kentucky was tied with No. 13 Florida at halftime of Saturday’s showdown atop the SEC standings in Lexington, but not because of Malik Monk. The freshman flamethrower put together one of the worst halves of his season, and with their star ineffective, the Wildcats sputtered offensively.

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But Monk, as he has so often this season, went into full-on takeover mode after halftime. He scored 30 second-half points to lead Kentucky to a 76-66 win over Florida, and to the top of the SEC, one game clear with one week to play.

Monk’s takeovers are like no other player’s in college basketball. They feature 3-pointers off the catch and the dribble, dunks in transition and off ball screens in halfcourt sets, and everything in between. At his most unstoppable, Monk even creates for teammates as well. He did all of those things Saturday.

And his takeover was the difference between 28 points on 0.78 per possession in the first half and 48 on 1.41 in the second half. Monk rose above one of the nation’s best defenses to lead Kentucky to a win that should be the difference between second place and an outright SEC title.

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Malik Monk scored 30 second-half points to break the deadlock at the top of the SEC. (AP)
Malik Monk scored 30 second-half points to break the deadlock at the top of the SEC. (AP)

But the road to 33 total points was nothing if not rocky. The complexion of the game changed minutes before tipoff when De’Aaron Fox emerged from the pregame locker room in sweats, and the program ruled him out for the afternoon with a knee contusion.

Without its starting point guard, Kentucky was plagued by two compounding issues early on. The Wildcats’ transition offense was slowed without its catalyst. Fox isn’t just a blur with the ball in his hands; he’s one of the best in college basketball at putting the ball ahead in transition, and it’s usually Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe who are able to leak out ahead of an opponent’s defense and get on the end of those passes. With Fox out, Monk and Briscoe were tasked with pushing the pace from back to front. They were the ones with the ball in their hands in the backcourt instead of the ones putting pressure on the defense in the frontcourt.

Monk and Briscoe, when compared to Fox, are also far less comfortable facilitating offense as lead ball handlers, both in transition and in the halfcourt. Kentucky coughed up the ball 12 times in the first half, and Monk and Briscoe accounted for more than half of the turnovers.

But after the break, Monk exploded. He started by getting to the rim and the foul line, which opened up the rest of his game.

Monk then got going from the perimeter. He’s now made 90 3-pointers on the season after hitting five in Saturday’s second half. He ran off screens, and despite Florida’s stout resistance, gradually ran the Gators out of the game.

Even with the Malik Monk show well underway, though, Kentucky still trailed, 52-47 after the third of those 3s. Then Kentucky and Monk did something they weren’t able to do much of in the first half: They got out on the break, and punished the visitors.

Derek Willis got to the rim and snuck in a left-handed slam on the break, then picked up a rebound and flipped the ball to Monk, who floated a layup over two Florida defenders, off the glass and in. Monk’s bucket brought the Wildcats within one, brought Big Blue Nation to its feet, and forced Gator coach Mike White to call timeout.

Florida hung around, and after briefly ceding the lead, regained control of it on a Canyon Barry 3. Monk, however, was relentless. He drove baseline off a Willis screen, and threw down a vicious dunk:

He again force White to take time with a 3 that put Kentucky up 6:

With all 10 Gator eyes boring in on him at all times, Monk began to used that attention to his advantage. He flipped one of his four second-half assists to Adebayo for an alley-oop jam:

With Fox out, it would have been understandable, if not rational, to expect the Wildcats to struggle, and even to surrender the SEC regular season crown to the fast-rising Gators. Florida had won nine in a row, and didn’t look like slowing down; it leapt out to an 18-6 lead in the opening minutes Saturday.

But Florida didn’t have Malik Monk. Kentucky’s turnaround was a simple as that; as simple as one player. And if the Wildcats can hold off Vanderbilt at home and Texas A&M on the road, they’ll take home a third-straight SEC regular season title.

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