By LARRY VAUGHT
Only three Kentucky players — Dan Issel, Jack Givens and Tayshaun Prince — have scored 40 points or more in a NCAA Tournament game. Freshman De’Aaron Fox almost made it four Friday night.
Fox had 39 points to help Kentucky beat UCLA in the South Region semifinals and advance to Sunday afternoon’s regional final against North Carolina for a berth in the Final Four.
“Honestly since the postseason started, I’ve been in attack mode. My teammates just kept going for me. We came in with a game plan. We knew with their bigs, we weren’t doing pick-and-rolls, and I mean, I just made shots today,” said Fox, who was 13-for-15 at the foul line and 13 of 20 from the field.
Fox did notice that Magic Johnson was at the game, but said it really didn’t matter to him.
“I saw him during warm-ups, but I mean, it didn’t change it. We’ve had celebrities at games and stuff, so I mean, playing on this stage, there’s going to be a lot of people there, people we probably don’t even know that were there,” Fox said. “We’re coming out to play basketball, and that’s all we’re worried about. We’re not worried about who’s in the crowd, and we’re trying to put on a show, but we’re trying to win a game at the same time.”
Fox clearly outplayed UCLA star freshman Lonzo Ball, who had 10 points and eight assists. But Malik Monk, who had 21 points for UK, said after the game that this was not a one-on-one battle for Fox.
“I think he’s motivated just to win because they beat us the first time, outfought us the first time. He just did not want to lose, and we did not want to lose, either, so he kept scoring and we kept giving him the ball,” Monk said.
“He’s a point guard, so he’s got to talk. He’s always talked throughout every game, he’s always talking, and we’re always talking together. If he does that, we’re going to be fine, and we know we’re going to be way more comfortable.”
Fox tried to downplay what he did.
“I think I scored like the first eight points of the game, and after that, I was like, you know, it’s going to be a good night for me. I mean, I just attribute that to all my teammates. We knew what the game plan is,” Fox said. “Nobody is going to help off Malik, nobody is going to help off Derek, and literally every time, no matter what game, if I get it going, ‘Lik and Derek are literally like, come to my side if you want a layup, if you a floater. Just do this or do that, and I listen to them.
“Even when I’m taking my guy one-on-one, it’s still a team thing because they’re telling me what to do and I’m just doing it. At the end of the day, Coach is putting me in position, my teammates put me in great positions, and all I’ve got to do is execute.”
Calipari has seen Fox improve dramatically, like many other freshmen have done at UK in his previous seven seasons.
“He’s grown, but what he’s learned to do is play physical, not take a hit and fly, and throw a ball. He’s learned to play through bumps. He’s learned to work. He’s understood the grind now,” Calipari said. “It took him a while. They think, well, I’m just going to go play. He shot 15 percent for a while. Like, dude, you can’t miss every single shot. Now all of a sudden, if he’s open, that ball is down.
“Second thing is he goes to the rim, and I know if he gets hit, he can still make it. Well, early in the season, he wasn’t doing that. But I am so proud of him, and today all I did at halftime is say, guys, are you watching this game? They said, yeah, okay, good, then you know we’re playing through De’Aaron Fox. The rest of you take a backseat, play off of him, but everything we’re doing good is through him the whole half. And they were ecstatic. Good. Let’s do it.”
UCLA senior guard Bryce Alford said Fox deserved credit for playing a great game.
“There’s a reason he is who he is and he has the hype around him. He’s very, very talented. It’s tough to stop a guy who has as good of a mid-range game as he does. That’s a lost art in college basketball, and it’s very hard to stop,” Alford said.
:The way he used pick-and-rolls, and he could get to the spot that he went to just about every time, and he didn’t miss a whole lot of shots tonight, so you’ve got to give credit to him. If we had to do it all over again, I don’t know if we’d change our game plan. He was just phenomenal tonight.”