MEMPHIS -- After playing the game of his young life in a marquee matchup against the player widely touted as the nation's best at his position, Kentucky freshman point guard De'Aaron Fox wasn't thinking about any of the career-high 39 points he scored Friday in the Wildcats' 86-75 NCAA Tournament victory over UCLA.
Instead, as a clear sign of Kentucky's growth as a team late in the season, Fox wanted to talk about his coach's favorite subject.
"Today, we really picked it up defensively," he said. "That's why we won, not because of our scoring. That team averages like 90 points a game, and we held them to 75, 15 less than their average. We attribute that to our defense today."
With the win, Kentucky (32-5) avenged a Dec. 3 loss at Rupp Arena in which the Bruins torched them for 97 points, lending credence to Fox's words.
In the head-to-head matchup with UCLA's Lonzo Ball, who many believe could be the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA Draft, Fox won decisively. The Bruins' star freshman finished with 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting from the field and committed four of his team's 13 turnovers.
The second-seeded Cats, riding a 14-game win streak, will advance to face top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in the South Region finals at FedExForum.
To get there, Fox went 13-of-20 from the field and 13-of-15 at the line to set a new freshman NCAA Tournament scoring record. The Texas native also dished out four assists, recorded two steals and committed only one turnover in 36 stellar minutes of action.
"I am so proud of him," UK coach John Calipari said. "Today, all I did at halftime is say, 'Guys, are you watching this game?' They said, 'Yeah.' 'OK, good, then you know we're playing through De'Aaron Fox. The rest of you take a back seat, 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.'"
"All credit to him. He's really, really good," UCLA coach Steve Alford said of Fox. "There's a reason he is who he is and he has the hype around him. He's very, very talented."
Added Alford: "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. 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."
Fox's backcourt mate, Malik Monk, chipped in with 21 points for the Wildcats. He shook off a slow start to give UK a boost early in the second half with a flurry of 3-pointers that gave his team its first cushion of the night.
"Very difficult guarding those two," Ball said of Fox and Monk. "They are two of the best players in the country. The pick-and-roll with Fox was a tough cover, and Malik, when he gets hot, he's tough to cover."
Kentucky also got 11 points from senior guard Dominique Hawkins and eight points, eight rebounds and four assists from senior forward Derek Willis.
The Cats led by as many as 14 in the second half despite UCLA shooting 63 percent after the break. The Bruins simply had no answer for Fox on the other end.
T.J. Leaf and Isaac Hamilton each scored 17 points to lead UCLA (31-5).
In this AllWildcats "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some quick-hitters from the game...
WHAT WE LIKED:
After losing to UCLA 97-92 at Rupp Arena in December, Kentucky knew the only way it was going to win the rematch was with defense. The final stats will show UCLA shooting 53 percent from the field, but that was aided by a 17-of-27 effort in the second half. UK held the Bruins to 43 percent and only 33 points in the first half by chasing their shooters off the 3-point arc and forcing them to take challenged 2s. In the process, the Cats established the tempo they desired for the rest of the night and limited UCLA to only nine transition points. "We learned that we had to do a better job of coaching defense, and we had to get them to understand transition defense better, playing elbows and blocks better, taking more pride in defense," Calipari said. "Because we lost to Kansas, UCLA, and that Florida, all in a stretch... I mean, they're really good teams, but it was our defense that hurt us. I think right now people are looking and saying, he's got all these freshmen, he's playing freshmen, and they're defending like they're seniors, like they've been around."
De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky -- Perhaps the easiest choice of the season, given the high stakes and the quality of the opponent. Fox delivered the third-highest scoring total in UK's prestigious NCAA Tournament history, behind only 44 points by Dan Issel in the 1970 Sweet 16 against Notre Dame and 41 points by both Jack Givens (1978 championship versus Duke) and Tayshaun Prince (2002 second round vs Tulsa).
BY THE NUMBERS:
6 - Turnovers by UK matched a season-low.
6-0 - Calipari's record in Sweet 16 games at UK.
8-6 - UK's lead in the all-time series against UCLA.
14-2 - The Cats' advantage in points off turnovers.
33rd - Elite Eight appearance for UK, the most of any program.
60 - Most combined points by two freshman teammates (Fox & Monk) in NCAA Tournament history.
1979 - Year of the previous freshman scoring record (34) for an NCAA Tournament game, set by DePaul's Mark Aguirre against Penn.
"We just wanted to make it hard on him to score, pressure him and make him have more guys around him when he drives the lane. We knew that he wanted to attack, and when he attacks, he actually likes to pass more than he wants to score. So off of that, we threw another body at him and made him pass it out." -- UK guard Dominique Hawkins on the Cats' defensive strategy against UCLA's Lonzo Ball.
Kentucky returns to action Sunday at 5 p.m. ET against North Carolina (30-7) in the South Region finals. The Cats and Tar Heels played on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas with UK claiming a 103-100 victory on the strength of a 47-point effort by Malik Monk. This time, the winner will advance to the Final Four in Phoenix.