The most entertaining college basketball game of the regular season came in December.
Malik Monk set a record for a Kentucky freshman with 47 points, including a go-ahead 3-pointer taken against his coach’s wishes, to lift the Wildcats to a 103-100 win over North Carolina.
Are these two ready for an encore?
Of course they are – though it’s a valid argument to say this rematch might be better suited for next weekend in the Final Four than Sunday in the Elite Eight.
“I remember watching them play and I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t put them in our bracket,'” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And there they are in our bracket.”
Indeed, the South bracket in which Kentucky and Carolina reside was pegged as the toughest on Selection Sunday. The top four seeds made it to the Sweet 16, and the Wildcats and Tar Heels moved within a game of the Final Four with double-digit wins.
North Carolina is a 2 1/2-point favorite in Sunday’s game, which will fill out a Final Four that already includes Gonzaga and Oregon, both of which won Saturday. The first meeting between the Heels and Cats – the late half of a made-for-TV doubleheader in Las Vegas three months ago – now feels like a distant memory.
“I don’t think we’re freshmen anymore,” Monk said. “You can’t use that term anymore because it’s in the tournament now. Nobody looks at that.”
Kentucky trailed 100-98 and Calipari was imploring his young freshman to drive the ball to the hoop in transition. Instead, he pulled up and made the 3 to put the Wildcats ahead for good with 16 seconds left.
“Heck of a college basketball game if you don’t care who won,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said afterward. “But I do care who wins.”
If North Carolina turns the tables, it will give the Tar Heels a return trip to the Final Four after their heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the final last year – on a buzzer-beating 3 by Kris Jenkins. It will also mark a festive send-off for Justin Jackson, who leads Carolina with 18.2 points a game and is expected to call this, his junior year, his last in college.
Kentucky’s list of probable one-and-doners includes Monk, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox.
“I’m not worried about that,” Fox said. “We’re still playing basketball, so I’m not thinking about leaving. If things go as planned, we still have three games left, so that’s not in my mind right now.”
SPEAKING OF REMATCHES: Sunday’s first game pits familiar foes in an unexpected setting. Florida and South Carolina of the Southeastern Conference will meet at Madison Square Garden for a trip to the Final Four.
“We’re playing a team we know,” said coach Frank Martin, who has led the Gamecocks further through the NCAA bracket than they have ever been. “We’re not playing the moment. We’re not playing a building. We’re not playing the NCAA Tournament. We’re playing the Florida Gators. And our focus should be playing a team that we have played twice.”
In many ways, it was the first meeting – a 57-53 South Carolina win on Jan. 18 – that set the stage for where both teams are today.
The Gators failed to sink a 3-pointer for the first time in 850 games – a streak that began in 1992 and lasted the entire Billy Donovan era. Another loss, three days later, prompted a two-hour team meeting that triggered a nine-game winning streak, including the rematch with the Gamecocks.
But South Carolina’s win over Florida also announced the Gamecocks as a force. It was their third win over a Top 25 team this season, and when it was over, senior Sindarius Thornwell said this: “Before the game, I was saying these are the games you prepare for in your backyard growing up.”
They certainly are. And this next one, too.
Republished with permission from the Associated Press.