After a very long week that included an exceptionally rare 2-game losing streak (at Tennessee; Kansas), the Big Blue Nation was more than ready to start a new week with a big win. Conference foe, Georgia, seemed to be the perfect answer for those suffering from the Big Blues. While the Dawgs had 9 losses already, Mark Fox had been making sure his team was competitive until the final buzzer. Even so, Cal’s Cats were expected to easily handle UGA and start a new win streak.
Even with a 9 p.m. start on a Tuesday night, Rupp Arena was filled with fans and excitement. I’m sure part of the electric atmosphere was related to having ESPN’s Brent Musburger in the house, calling his final college basketball game. But things took a sudden turn downward.
First, it was confirmation that Mychal Mulder was still not playing due to an undisclosed illness. Next, De’Aaron Fox was noticeably absent from the team’s warm-up. Initially listed as a “game-time decision,” it was soon reported by UK that Fox would not be playing due to illness. Then we found out Tony Greene and Pat Adams were 2 of the officials assigned to the game (I assume more than a few of you groaned audibly, as I did when this information came out). One final bit of news was discovering that Sacha Killeya-Jones had also taken ill and would be unavailable. At first glance, SKJ’s absence was of no concern as it had been many weeks since he had been on the floor. But as our bench continued to shrink, the Blue faithful were understandably concerned.
The concern was well-founded as the Cats stumbled out of the gate, quickly falling behind by 14 points with less than 8 minutes having been played. Cal experimented with a bigger lineup (Monk, Briscoe, Adebayo, Willis and Humphries). When asked about this decision after the game, Cal replied, “Well, what did you think? How did that start go? It wasn’t really good, was it? So obviously that won’t be how we start. We’ll just have to figure it out.”
Eventually, the Cats did figure it out and ended up going into halftime tied with the Dawgs at 29. Isaiah Briscoe led the charge in the first half, finishing the game with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists. But it was Malik Monk who owned the 2nd, racking up 37 points, along with 3 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks. Monk credited Briscoe for his monstrous half:
“Isaiah was way too aggressive than he was in the first half and I was able to feed off of his energy and everything that he was doing and knock down the shots he was giving me.”
Of course, the Cats had to do it the hard way. After building up a comfortable lead in the 2nd half, the final 4 minutes saw Kentucky seemingly forget how to score, and Georgia had a 2-point lead with under 30 seconds remaining in the game. Once again, Malik Monk worked his magic and managed to hit the game-tying field goal and send the game to overtime.
The final 5 minutes was far less stressful as the Cats ended up with a 9-point victory, 90-81. The win was expected, but the execution was not. Turnovers were still an issue, and defense was inconsistent. But perhaps the most telling thing about how unusual this game played out, one only had to grasp that Kentucky was playing <gasp> zone defense. Cal said in his post-game press conference:
“The kid (Monk) had 30 in the second half, I mean, come on. We barely could get out of the gym. I don’t know how we won, to be honest. One, they played well. We went zone, and I’ve got to give credit to Tony Barbee, I’m not a zone coach. I don’t like zone, and for two days we’ve been playing zone.We had to do it because we needed to get back to being sharp against it, but we also were playing big lineups with Wenyen (Gabriel) or Derek (Willis) at the three. So we just played zone for two days. So when Tony coached it and I just cringed and saw every —Look, when we play zone, every shot they shoot is a three and it goes in. And when they play us zone, we can’t make any shots. I don’t understand that, but that’s how it is.”