Three is Fletcher Magee’s lucky number, at least most of the time.
Magee became the NCAA’s all-time 3-point king on Thursday night for tiny Wofford, running his career total to 509 in a win over Seton Hall. Then he set a more dubious record on Saturday against Kentucky, misfiring on a record dozen attempts in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
When the last of his 12 treys rattled off the rim, Magee rubbed his head in frustration and disbelief.
It was defense, defense and defense – that’s right, three times the defense – that propelled the Wildcats past Wofford 62-56 and into the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the 28th time, tying that all-time record.
Do yourself a favor and watch Magee’s shot-making ability and you will better appreciate the defensive effort of three (of course, right?) Kentucky players – Tyler Herro, Ashton Hagans and Jemarl Baker – who made it happen.
They took turns chasing Magee all over the arena, hounding him through screens and at every turn, allowing him no room to get off one of his contorted shots that almost magically seemed to find the way through the basket. Except on this day, they didn’t. He was 4-for-17 overall and one of those came after he double-dribbled (video would confirm the no call). Only one of his dozen treys was shot uncontested.
Magee, while also giving Kentucky’s defense some credit, attributed it mostly to an off shooting night in the postgame press conference.
“They played pretty good defense as far as topping me and trying to deny me the ball and not come off screens and stuff, but a lot of schools have done that. A lot of teams have done that to me before, and we found ways to get around it. Mainly, a lot of it was just me being off my shot.”
With all due respect, I beg to differ. I attribute it as much to incredible collective team defense, the kind that coach John Calipari preaches and teaches, the kind that wins championships. The odds of Magee, a confident 40-percent shooter from downtown all season, going 0-for-12 from behind the stripe were astronomical. Defense had much to do with his failure to launch.
“It just doesn’t seem right to end on a game going 0 for 12 from 3,” Magee said. “If I go 3 for 12, we win the game. I’m not sure how that happens. I'm sure I won’t get over it for a while.”
Herro was the hero of the defensive effort, doing much of the chasing, maybe to the determent of his own offense (2-for-11, 1-for-6 on 3s) as Calipari had feared. They made Magee a mess by sticking to him.
“I watched him on film and he doesn’t miss,” Herro said. “I feel like he can make any shot on the floor the way he shoots it.”
But defense is the reason why Kentucky can play without All-American PJ Washington and still be scooting on to the Sweet Sixteen (You see what I did there?). Wofford is a great team, a 30-game winner and No. 7 seed. This was not a game for the faint of heart. It was kind of hard to watch.
Defense is one big reason – and maybe the biggest reason - why Kentucky is still standing going into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
The other factor is the PJ factor. These Kentucky players bought some time for Washington’s foot to heal up and maybe join them on the court again.
Until then, though, defense will continue to be the calling card for a Kentucky team that remains formidable without its best player.
MARK MAYNARD is managing editor of Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org