Coming off a big win at Auburn, Kentucky could easily have looked past tonight’s game vs. Mississippi State. Yes, the Bulldogs are ranked, but with No. 9 Kansas and College Gameday coming to town on Saturday, would anyone have been shocked if the Cats had slipped up? For a few tense moments in the second half, it looked like that might happen, but thankfully, Kentucky put its foot back on the gas and cruised past Mississippi State 76-55 for their fifth straight win. Let’s talk about it.
PJ Washington took over
A lot of guys played well tonight, but we have to start with PJ Washington. PJ hasn’t been the most consistent Cat this season but put the exclamation point on a string of good games with 21 points off 9-15 from the floor, 3-5 from the three-point line, six rebounds, and a career-high four blocks in 28 minutes. After a massive dunk about five minutes into the second half, PJ picked up two fouls and had to go to the bench, but when he came back in, scored eight quick points and blocked two shots to help put the Cats ahead by a comfortable margin. As Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said, when PJ’s playing like that, he’s hard to beat.
“[PJ Washington] looked like an All-SEC player to me,” Howland said. “What makes him so special is that he’s versatile…He can score in every way possible.”
PJ’s potential is one reason Calipari refuses to accept his lapses.
“PJ played. Four blocks, 21 points, and 6 rebounds, but I still think he played without that motor in parts of the game, and that’s what was making me angry. Come on, man. Battle. But that’s how good I think he is.”
This dunk said it all:
The defense was excellent
Kentucky held Mississippi State to 31.1 percent from the floor tonight, the third lowest field goal percentage by an opponent this season behind Monmouth (27.6) and Georgia (30.4). Coming into this game, the Bulldogs were hitting 48 percent from the floor and making nine threes a game; they were only 3-20 from beyond the arc tonight for 15 percent.
“Their defense caused us a lot of problems,” Howland said. “They got us playing fast and they got us to playing to where we were in a hurry rather than being in control offensively.”
Tyler Herro was a catalyst on offense
Herro followed up a clutch performance at Auburn with another big night, finishing with 18 points (5-10 FG), 5 rebounds, an assist and a steal. He was a perfect 3-3 from the three-point line and 5-5 from the free-throw line. When Kentucky’s offense stalled, more often than not, Herro was the one to get it going again, a promising sign from a player who continues to trend upwards.
Still too many lapses
After the win over Auburn, Calipari said he showed his team ten plays that gave Auburn a chance to win in the second half. The fact that Kentucky let Mississippi State cut the lead to two tonight and committed 16 turnovers is proof they’re still a work in progress.
“Those two or three plays, we’re making ourselves, they’re self-inflicted that let teams be in the games when we should be good enough to get away from teams,” Cal said. “It only takes one or two things to change the whole complexion of a game so we’re showing them, we’re talking about it.”
How about that three by EJ Montgomery?
Did EJ Montgomery listen to today’s show? The lanky freshmen reminded everyone that yes, he can shoot by making his first three of the season with 2:50 left in the game. The three was refreshing, but his block ten minutes earlier was much more important. With Kentucky’s lead down to three, Montgomery swatted Quinndary Weatherspoon’s shot, which Tyler Herro picked up and threaded to Nick Richards for a rim-rattling dunk.
“I keep telling him, he’s going to break through and everyone’s going to say, oh my gosh, who is that guy?” Calipari said of EJ after the game. “Did you see that block? It changed the game. If we had another big guy in and he acted like it’s not my man and didn’t block that shot, we could have lost the game. That changed the game.”
Did the KSR curse hit Nick Richards?
Nick Richards came into this game making 71.4 percent of his free throws, an impressive mark Matt just had to praise on the pregame show. Tonight, Nick only hit 4-8 from the charity stripe. That’s not a bad percentage for a big man, but is still proof the KSR curse lives on.
Keldon Johnson didn’t need a wakeup call
Ashton Hagans didn’t need to yell at Keldon Johnson tonight; after Mississippi State went up 4-0, Keldon scored seven of Kentucky’s first ten points, including two massive dunks. He went quiet in the second half, scoring only two points and grabbing two boards before fouling out with about six minutes left, but at that points, the Cats were up by 13. That foul on him was totally bogus, by the way.
Reid Travis owned the boards, but missed buckets
Kentucky won the rebounding battle 43-36 in large part thanks to Reid Travis, who had a team-high 12 boards. On the flip side, Reid was only 1-6 from the floor, a mark that Calipari said has to go up.
“I like the fact that Travis had 12 rebounds, but still, he’s missing some baskets he’s gotta make.”
Ashton’s steals streak came to an end
Unless UK sends out an updated box score crediting Ashton with another steal, his streak of games with three or more steals will end at seven. That being said, the freshman had a career-high nine assists and was once again a pest defensively.
“I thought Ashton, when you’re on the ball, playing like he plays, it bleeds into everybody else,” Cal said. “That’s why when we recruit point guards, if we have a guy, I tell them: How are we going to start our defense if he can’t stay in front of the ball? The stats don’t matter to me; can he do it. Last year, we had — Shea did it, and now Ashton does it.”
Get the tweak shirts back out because Calipari said he made a change on offense.
“We are still trying to mess with offense. I did a couple different things today that you guys don’t know basketball, so you wouldn’t know, but there was some things I did offensively that were different because I wanted to try some stuff. And I kind of liked one, and the other, I wasn’t so sure of.”
I think Cal listened to the pregame show and told EJ to go do his best Steph Curry impression. What’s your guess?