Kentucky's freshman duo heats up heading into SEC championship game

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Malik Monk's teammates refused to say that their sharpshooting freak of a freshman was in a slump.

Kentucky sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe snapped at reporters at least twice in two days when he heard the words "slump" and "Malik" in the same sentence.

But that didn't stop the future first-round NBA draft pick from rolling out of bed around 7 a.m. for a 7:30 shootaround with teammate Wenyen Gabriel. After scoring just eight points in his past two games -- shooting 3-of-17 in the process -- Monk decided to get some extra, early-morning work inside Bridgestone Arena, home to the 2017 SEC tournament.

Slump or not, Monk's cutting of Saturday morning cartoons to trek out into a flash snowstorm paid off immensely. The frosh was back to his old ways, scoring 20 on 6 of 14 shooting as No. 8 Kentucky outlasted Alabama 79-74 to set up Sunday's SEC tournament championship game with Arkansas, who later sprinted past Vanderbilt for a 76-62 victory.

"It was great," Monk said of his 20-point performance.

Monk's reemergence from a two-game haze was key to the Wildcats' win, but it meant even more when you add the fact that his frosh partner in crime, De'Aaron Fox, scored 28 of his own, 19 of them coming in the second half.

Kentucky's star rookies, who coach John Calipari called "warriors" following their performances, found their strokes together at the right time, as the Wildcats are now a win away from their 30th SEC tournament championship and a game away from elimination season in the NCAA tournament.

"When they're going together, we're unbelievable," freshman forward Bam Adebayo said of his classmates. "That opens up the court for all of us."

Now this isn't anything unusual for the Wildcats. Monk and Fox have been on fire for most of the season, scoring in double digits together 25 times in 33 games thus far, but it's the timing that has to have Kentucky fans downright giddy.

Monk's shot looked more confident, much more precise. Fox had what he called "that dog" in him with how he gashed the Crimson Tide in through the paint.

"Sometimes, it's my turn to make plays down the stretch, and today it was mine again.

"When you smell blood, just keep attacking."

At this point in the year, every game becomes a championship game for everyone. So Monk finding that shot and Fox becoming an even more dangerous slicing scorer is critical to Cats' survival in their upcoming games.

"We're starting to click now because we're starting to mature, and it's showing," Adebayo said.

Sunday is a great opportunity for more confidence to bloom against an Arkansas team that arrived in Nashville as a little talked about 3-seed that has scooted to its second SEC title game appearance in three years.

Kentucky is seeking its third straight SEC tournament title and is therefore going to be easy favorites. And that's fine to an Arkansas team carrying just as much momentum as the Cats. Kentucky has won 10 in a row since a blowout loss at Florida in early February, while Arkansas has won eight of its past nine, with only one coming within six or fewer points.

The Razorbacks, who are firmly in the NCAA tournament, embrace the lack of attention and want to prove they're more than just Kentucky's opponent on Sunday.

"We were the 3-seed, and I think we were the least talked about [conference] 3-seed in the country," Arkansas senior guard Manuale Watkins said. "They were talking [more] about Vandy and even Ole Miss after we beat them.

"Obviously, Kentucky's the most talked about team, and we're going to use that to fuel our fire and get the win."

Fellow Razorbacks guard Anton Beard offered his take.

"We know what we can do and what we are doing," Beard said. "We feel that people not talking about us is motivation. We're just playing to prove a point to people."

A way the Hogs can prove a point is by controlling their nonstop tempo, playing more aggressively than they did in their 97-71 loss to the Cats earlier this year and pounding the paint, like they did against Vandy. Arkansas outscored Vandy 46-16 in the paint on Saturday, shortly after Alabama outscored Kentucky 46-24 inside.

In order to win, Arkansas is going to have to go full SEC football in the trenches, starting with 6-foot-10 senior forward Moses Kingsley, who managed 14 points and seven rebounds against Kentucky earlier this season and who roughed up Vandy for 12 points and 13 boards on Saturday.

"We own the paint when Moses Kinglsey comes," Beard said. "Every time he steps up, we own the paint, and that's what we need tomorrow."