INDIANAPOLIS — The gap between Kentucky and Wichita State is not as vast as one might expect, given the disparities in their histories, conferences, budgets and brand recognition.
We learned that in a famously competitive NCAA Tournament second-round game in 2014, and we got a refresher Sunday in another down-to-the-last-possession second-round rematch.
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The fact that Kentucky won both, this time 65-62 and last time 78-76, is no slight against the Shockers, who proved the widespread notion that a No. 10 seed was beneath them.
But the fact also is this: No. 2 seed Kentucky was — as it is against most opponents — the more dynamic, athletic team, and it showed at several key junctures at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Three of them came in the final 1:25, all involving freshmen.
With Kentucky (31-5) down to a 61-59 edge after having led 58-51, freshman De’Aaron Fox noted that the Shockers (31-5) had switched from man-to-man defense to zone. Bingo!
“I saw nobody behind my defender,” he said. “When I saw there was nobody there and I had a clear lane, I just took it.”
So he did, in the form of a spectacular lefthanded dunk — his second such play in the final minutes.
With 13 seconds left and Wichita State within 63-62, the Shockers’ Markis McDuffie tried an off-balance three-pointer that was blocked by freshman guard Malik Monk. “Just playing straight-up defense,” Monk said. “We knew we couldn’t foul, and we knew they were going to shoot a three. Just play solid. I just contested well.”
With Kentucky up 65-62 after a pair of free throws by Monk, Wichita State’s Landry Shamet tried to put up a tying three as the clock expired. He pump-faked Dominique Hawkins and nearly was fouled, at which point 6-10 freshman Bam Adebayo emerged to swat away the shot and end the game.
“He pump-faked Dom, so I had to help my teammate,” Adebayo said. “As soon as he went to jump, I blocked it.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he considered having his team foul intentionally earlier in the play to prevent a three-point try, but by the time he was ready to pull that trigger, it was too late to convey the message.
“When it got down to four, five [seconds], I’m thinking we’ve got to foul,” he said.
He did not need to, thanks to the firepower at his disposal, which has been a Kentucky trademark.
So now it’s on to Memphis for a game against UCLA in another regional semifinal appearance.
But not before we leave behind a game befitting the teams with the two longest active winning streaks in the nation entering Sunday. It was the second time in tournament history that two 30-win teams played on the first weekend.
Someone asked Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall if the narrow loss validated his team like the one in 2014, when his team entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. “How many years do we have to do this to make people respect our program?” he said. “I don’t know. That’s up to you [reporters] . . . We sleep really well at night knowing what we have and what we continue to prove and what we continue to do as a program.”
Monk and Fox each scored 14 points for Kentucky, which has won 13 in a row. Adebayo had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Shamet scored 20 for Wichita State, which had its winning streak snapped at 16 games.
Shamet accepted blame for some of the shoddy offensive execution on the final two possessions.
“If we get a break or two, and another shot goes down, maybe we’re advancing; maybe we win the whole thing,” Marshall said. “I mean, that’s possible. So that will be our goal next year.”
Another game against Kentucky along the way would be a nice touch.