MEMPHIS — Nothing strikes fear in the North Carolina men’s basketball team quite like Malik Monk.
No, he doesn’t haunt the Tar Heels’ dreams quite like Kris Jenkins does — nobody could — but the Kentucky guard’s 47-point epic from December still stings. And with the No. 1 seed Tar Heels (30-7) and No. 2 seed Wildcats (32-5) facing off in Sunday’s Elite Eight, there’s still no answer for Monk.
In UNC’s 103-100 loss on Dec. 17, Monk scored nearly half of Kentucky’s points at T-Mobile Center in Las Vegas. It was highest scoring total of any Division-1 player this season, the most by a first-year in Wildcat history and the most a Roy Williams-coached team has ever allowed.
It was a spectacle unlike anything Williams had ever seen.
“He set the world on fire against us,” he said.
After scoring 15 of Kentucky’s first 21 points, Monk saved his best for last. The first-year erased a slim halftime deficit and dropped 27 points in the second half — including a dagger over senior forward Isaiah Hicks with 22 seconds left to take a one-point lead and down the Tar Heels for good.
“Even though you wanted to be there and try to bother his shot,” Hicks said, “it felt like he was going to make everything.”
Monk did miss 10 of his shots on that night in Las Vegas. But he converted on 18 attempts, including eight from deep, in the most prolific shooting performance of his career.
Yet the Tar Heels still came within three points of Monk and co. in their second loss of the season.
“We always look back how close we were and how we let one guy basically get all of their points,” junior guard Joel Berry said. “And if we can take that away, we would have won the game.”
Erasing Monk is easier said than done. In December, UNC sophomore guard Kenny Williams was largely tasked with stopping the 6-foot-3 Monk, but he found little success. Senior guard Nate Britt met a similar fate. Even Justin Jackson, who poured in a career-high 34 points of his own, couldn’t halt Kentucky’s top scorer.
Berry said the biggest key to shutting down players of Monk’s caliber is denying them the ball, which is a primary focus of UNC’s “22 defense.” But when paired with backcourt mate De’Aaron Fox — who scored 24 points in December and a career-high 39 points in Friday’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA — sometimes physicality and a prayer is the only true defense.
“I don't think there was much that was going to stop him that night,” junior wing Theo Pinson said. “He was unbelievable.”
Pinson missed his first chance against Kentucky with a foot injury. But without Kenny Williams — who was arguably UNC’s best perimeter defender before suffering a season-ending knee injury in February — the burden of stopping Monk in Sunday’s rematch will fall largely on Pinson, who is two inches taller and over 30 pounds heavier than his teammate.
“Maybe if Theo was playing, Malik only has 30 points and we still win the game,” senior forward Kennedy Meeks said. That's just the type of effect that he has.”
From the sidelines, Pinson studied Monk’s tendencies and thought what he might do if he was on the court. Those pull-up jumpers, those fading 3-pointers — how would he stop them?
“I don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “I know I’d have a couple of fouls before he’d get 47.”
In that December classic, Monk went to line just five times and made three of them. But as an 82.6 percent shooter, even that’s not a solution to stopping him. Denying him the ball leaves open lanes for Fox; collapsing on Fox leaves Monk wide open.
So what’s the answer to stopping North Carolina’s worth nightmare?
“You’ve just got to make it tough,” Pinson said. “And hope he misses, really.”
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