Some players are made for the stage, and it’s hard to come up with a bigger one than tonight’s. In Madison Square Garden, No. 2 Kentucky knocked off No. 1 Michigan State 69-62 to start the season in large part thanks to Tyrese Maxey. The freshman guard came off the bench to score 26 points, the most ever by a Kentucky freshman in their debut and the most ever by a Kentucky player in a regular season game against the No. 1 team in the AP Poll. No shot was bigger than this one, which put Kentucky ahead by five with one minute left:
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) November 6, 2019
“I shoot that shot a thousand times,” Maxey said afterwards. “I shot it a thousand times in high school, I shot it a thousand times this summer, and I have confidence in myself because I put in the work. He dropped his back foot and I knew I was going to knock it down.”
How appropriate was it that John Wall was on the sidelines? Ten years after Wall announced himself on the Madison Square Garden stage vs. UConn, Maxey followed suit, not only making shots (7-12 FG, 3-7 3PT, 9-10 FT) but grabbing crucial rebounds and stymying the Spartans on defense. Towards the end of the game, it seemed Maxey was doing it all, proof that big-time players make big-time plays. I’d say he took that report that NBA executives don’t think Kentucky has a lottery pick personally, but after watching him smile and bounce around the court, I don’t think Maxey entertains negative thoughts.
Maxey’s performance is obviously the story of the game, but there is plenty of other good stuff to cover before we attempt to go to sleep.
Kentucky also won this game with defense. The Cats held the Spartans to 39.3% from the field, 19.2% from three. They forced 16 turnovers, which translated into 21 points. Preseason National Player of the Year Cassius Winston is great, but Kentucky held him to 21 points, 1-7 from behind the arc. The bulk of that credit goes to Ashton Hagans, who rose to the challenge despite being injured (more on that in a minute).
“We stayed on [Winston] on pick and rolls and put the pitbull on him,” Maxey said. “[Hagans] did what he does.”
Ashton Hagans was playing with an injury
Hagans faded as the game went on, and afterwards, we found out why. According to Calipari, Hagans has been bothered by a leg injury he suffered in the Kentucky State game.
“He was hurt. His leg has been bothering him for about four or five days,” Cal said. “He is really tough. For him to say his leg is bothering him, and we’ve had the MRI, we’ve done everything, there’s nothing there. It’s more of a strain, a muscle thing. And I just kept telling him, ‘Take yourself out. Tell me when you’re ready to go.’ And that last free throw he made, he looked at me like, take me out and EJ ran down, so he stayed on the court. But he’s really a mentally and physically tough kid.”
Hagans scored five of Kentucky’s first eleven points and looked every bit the floor general we’ve come to expect; however, once on the sideline after the first timeout, he strapped one of Kentucky’s fancy heating belts to his leg.
Hagans finished with eleven points, two rebounds, three assists, a steal, and three turnovers in nearly 29 minutes. Even when he was on the sidelines, he provided leadership, yelling instructions to his teammates and encouraging them to stay focused.
“Ashton was on me and they were on me about my spirit,” Maxey said afterwards. “Just being happy, smiling, loosening up my teammates, which I feel like I did.”
We knew Maxey would fail at No Smile November, but Hagans did his best to keep the team locked in during warmups. Gone was the group that barked and howled in the pregame tunnel before being embarrassed by Duke last year; instead, the Cats were calm and collected, which showed in their fast start.
“Our main focus this time was go out there and have fight and be aggressive,” Hagans said. “Go out there and be aggressive first, hit them first and that’s what it was.”
“Last year, you know we got pounded. We lost to a good Duke team. Like I said, remain focused, stick to the game plan, do what coach was telling us. We were going hard in practice and competing against each other very hard so go on out there and do it against the No. 1 team.”
How about Nick Richards?
For a guy who sprained his ankle nine days ago, Nick Richards sure played well. The junior big man had seven points and four rebounds in 25 minutes — too many, according to Calipari — before fouling out. With EJ Montgomery limited after being elbowed in the mouth, Nick did his best to help Kentucky stay strong in the post, which is more than we could ask for given how nasty that fall looked in the Georgetown College exhibition.
In the second half, Nate Sestina stepped up as well. Midway through the second half, Sestina played a big part in a 9-0 run to push the score to 54-41, tallying a block, three rebounds, an assist, and a three in less than a minute and a half. Kentucky’s frontcourt is still a question mark — only 20 points in the paint to Michigan State’s 32 — but if EJ, Nick, and Nate can contribute like they did tonight, it may be enough.
I like my team
What a difference a year makes. I’ll never forget the walk back to my hotel after watching Kentucky get demolished by Duke, a loss so deflating it hung over the fanbase for months. Last year’s team came within a shot of making the Final Four and could have won it all, so it’s best not to read too much into the first game of the season, even if it’s a win over the No. 1 team in the country.
…But man, it feels good. Kentucky will take over the top spot in the polls and, barring a major surprise, will stay there until late December. That Louisville game could be one for the ages.
Like Maxey, I can’t wipe the smile off my face.