Kentucky Basketball Moves From Fighter To Boxer

INDIANAPOLIS – In the opening week of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, there were 51 basketball games and one boxing match.

Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 with a unanimous 65-62 scorecard decision in a slugfest with Wichita State that went the full 12 rounds Sunday afternoon.

The only thing missing, in a fitting circle of life moment, was famed ring announcer Michael Buffer, emcee for Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness, which kicked off this basketball season so many months ago.

The venue was the posh Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, home to the Pacers. It might well have been a smoke-filled armory, damp and dark from its cinder block construction.

From the get-go, Kentucky vs. Wichita State had the feeling of a heavyweight bout. There was the revenge factor, the Wildcats having stunned the undefeated Shockers in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

There were the coaches turned trainers for this one special fight. Kentucky’s

John Calipari , the scrappy Italian from hardscrabble beginnings, opposite Wichita State’s

Gregg Marshall , the bridesmaid contender always playing the no respect card while demanding a shot at the title.

Even the press conferences, routinely a cliche-riddled exercise held one day before all the basketball games, dissolved into a boisterous weigh-in with the challenger shouting disparaging insults and tossing around brash predictions.

“They're nothing special, nothing we can't do,” Darral Willis Jr. declared to any open microphone. “We're not scared to play any team on this planet earth. We're ready and we'll be ready to play.”

Kentucky big man

Bam Adebayo was the target after he grabbed 18 rebounds in the Wildcats’ opening win over Northern Kentucky.

“That’s going to get shut down,” Willis promised. “We box out and we play fundamental defense.”

Marshall even tweaked the UK freshman.

“Bam, I'm sure he's in great shape,” Marshall said, “but he's going to need to be in great shape tomorrow.”

It was fitting, therefore, that Adebayo deliver the final, decisive blow, soaring up to block a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. For the bout, he recorded a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds.

The only thing “shut down” was Wichita State’s season.

The trash talking aside, Sunday’s fight was a beauty, worthy of any marquee. Kentucky’s largest lead was seven points, Wichita State’s was four. The score was tied five times with 11 lead changes.

But in the end, the Kentucky pugilists in white trunks pulled themselves off the stool for one final flurry of knockout punches.

Malik Monk , struggling with his shot, drilled a 3-pointer with 2:10 remaining to give Kentucky some breathing room at 61-56. The boxer explains how he landed the punch.

“I saw that his hand was down,” Monk said. “I knew I could get a clean look and that’s what I did. If I get a clean look, I think I have a pretty good chance of making it.”

A short time later, Monk blocked a 3-point attempt that, if successful, would have given Wichita State the lead with only 13 seconds before the final bell.

“I timed everything,” Monk said. “I knew all his dribbles. As soon as he picked it up I knew he was going to shoot it.”

The haymaker was blocked as was another at the buzzer thanks to Adebayo’s quick thinking. In between was a De’Aaron Fox steal and breakaway slam dunk that sent the Shockers sprawling to the mat.

“We’re way more mentally tougher than we were,” Monk said. “We didn’t break down.”

CBS Sports reseeds the remaining 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament Start SlideShow

Kentucky did much more than that. They proved they have evolved from lightweight to heavyweight, capable of slugging it out for the duration. They have moved from fighter to boxer.

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