MEMPHIS — On the occasions Kentucky and UCLA meet with loaded rosters and seasons at stake, anticipation rises to unfair levels, represented in the specific case Friday night by the courtside presence of Magic Johnson. Gratitude, then, is what all those players deserve. They faced an impossible ask, and they delivered. They provided a breakneck beauty, conducted somewhere near the apex of college basketball, amid the rabid exhalations of Kentucky’s faithful, by participants wearing unmistakable shades of blue.
A classic burst forth from FedEx Forum, turning in Kentucky’s favor slowly at first, then all at once. The Wildcats left with a 86-75 victory and a spot in the Elite Eight, in which it will play top-seeded North Carolina in another clash of college hoops royalty Sunday. UCLA headed back to California, where it will wonder whether Coach Steve Alford will stray to fill the vacancy at Indiana, his alma mater.
It is no small feat to etch a name in the Kentucky annals, but freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox managed it Friday night. Fox thoroughly outplayed Lonzo Ball, UCLA’s wunderkind point guard, hounding Ball into only 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting as he carried Kentucky’s offense, scoring 39 of his own on just 20 shots. Fox might be both the fastest and most relentless player in college basketball. He slithered to the rim whenever he wanted. By the end, Ball had turned weary and Fox remained a current of electricity.
The stakes added to the theater, but the athleticism and shooting on display would have made it a classic if played with nothing on the line. The teams traded the lead 13 times in the first half, with Kentucky escaping up three. The first five minutes of the second half presented the best college basketball can do. Ball zipped into the lane for a layup. Malik Monk rained in bombs from several strides behind the three-point arc. TJ Leaf dunked an alley-oop pass thrown by Ball from midcourt.
Eventually, though, Kentucky’s smothering defense and shooting barrage overwhelmed UCLA. Monk shook a recent slump to drain four three-pointers and score 21 points.
Johnson watched from the front row in his capacity as the Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball czar, seated next to General Manager Rob Pelinka. Under most conditions, Johnson would have been in Los Angeles, where the Lakers unveiled a statue of Shaquille O’Neal. Not Friday. “Both Rob and I got a job to do,” he said. Where else could they evaluate such prospects in one place?
“It’s hard to find a college game for you to have this much talent on the floor,” Johnson said. “Both sides. And it’s a well-played game.”
“You want to see the best players play in a huge game like this and see how they respond,” Pelinka added. “It’s very important. A big thing when you’re judging talent is how guys compete at the highest level.”
Ball could not have helped his stock. In surely his final college game, Ball never asserted himself as a scorer, missing five of the six three-pointers he launched. He still orchestrated UCLA’s offense and passed out eight assists. But Fox refused to let him breathe.
The programs of Rupp and Wooden, of Walton and Issel, overflowed with history, 19 championships and 35 Final Fours between them. Kentucky has a chance to make it 36, and maybe 20. Their performance Friday night, no matter how their season ends, was something to remember.