Kentucky extended its lead on LSU in the standings to two games plus a tiebreaker with an impressive win in Baton Rouge late Tuesday night. The Cats were up for most of the game, but nothing came easy.
Shots weren’t falling in the first half, yet the lead went to the visiting locker room at halftime. Then when Kentucky jumped out to a comfortable lead in the second half, LSU’s full court press and some big shots by the Tigers made it a game all over again in the final minutes.
However, in the end, your University of Kentucky Wildcats prevailed, 79-76, in one of the biggest tests on the schedule.
These are my 10 takeaways:
1. Immanuel Quickley is still really good.
If you thought it was time for Immanuel Quickley to cool off, you, my friend, were wrong. Quickley continued his tear through conference play with another 20 piece, this time at 21 points scored on 7-of-12 shooting from the field. He led all scorers in the game, while setting a new career high in assists with six, and his points-per-game average in the month of February is up to a cool 19.67 (we’ll call it 20) in six games, all but one of them wins.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your time with Quickley in Lexington because it will be coming to an end after this season.
He was money in this one, especially in the second half when he didn’t miss a shot.
2. Nickembe Mutombo Richards took advantage of his size.
Like Quickley, Nick Richards seems to bring it every night and Tuesday night he brought it against the undersized LSU frontcourt. The big fella used that size advantage to block six shots, the most he’s blocked in a game since he swatted seven against Lamar, and altered many others. He also took a charge as momentum was swinging UK’s way in the second half and he fell just a point and a rebound shy of his season averages, so about an average game offensively.
Above all that, the best news is his eyeball is OK after he fouled Emmitt Williams’ finger with it:
Foul on Nick Richards for getting his head in the way of the offensive player’s arm. pic.twitter.com/0W925gOEt2
— Not Jerry Tipton (@NotJerryTipton) February 19, 2020
3. Ashton Hagans is back! But is he out?
Let’s ignore his early turnovers and give a big “Welcome back!” to Ashton Hagans. UK’s slumping point guard hit a couple of 3s, got back into double-figure scoring with 11 points, dished out four assists, protected the ball after a couple of early goofs, and none of that matters right now because he is out with a left thigh contusion. The prognosis? John Calipari couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say after the game.
It was comforting to see UK close out a second straight game without him. That being said, we should talk about all hell breaking loose against LSU’s full court press.
4. HEY SIRI HOW DO YOU BREAK A FULL COURT PRESS
My goodness, things took a turn for the worse when LSU cranked up the full court press with Hagans on the bench dealing with that thigh injury. UK’s 10-point lead dropped to five in a matter of seconds thanks to two very bad turnovers by Nate Sestina against the press. Sestina threw the ball away on consecutive possessions, which led to instant LSU points and a near miraculous comeback. Kentucky was able to survive because…
5. Nate Sestina’s 3-pointers put it out of reach.
As bad as he was on those two attempts to break the press, Sestina made up for it with three of the biggest shots of the game, all 3-pointers, all in the second half. His back-to-back 3s moved Kentucky’s lead to 12 and then 15 points, the biggest lead in the entire game. He also gave maximum effort defensively and on the glass against the Tigers’ elite athleticism — the exact opposite of what anyone expected. Leave aside the late turnovers and it was a great game. 11 points, eight rebounds and the highest +/ on the team with a +15.
6. Things that could’ve been better: rebounding and second-chance points
There’s no need to complain after a win like this, but we should at least acknowledge LSU won the rebounding battle, 45-33, and scored 26 second-chance points to UK’s 12.
OK that’s enough negativity. Kentucky beat LSU at LSU so who cares about rebounding?
7. Three-point shooting won the game.
This is kind of what I just said under (5) Nate Sestina’s 3-pointers put it out of reach but we need a special section to celebrate the entire team’s success from outside. The Cats hit seven of eight 3-pointers in the second half and five different players hit at least one in the game: Sestina (3), Quickley (2), Hagans (2), Maxey (1), Juzang (1).
The second half was much more fun to watch than the first.
8. Defense also won the game.
Kentucky held one of the country’s best offensive teams to well below its normal efficiency and scoring average. LSU shot only 39.4% from the floor and scored well below its season average of 81 points per game, the ninth-best average in college basketball before Tuesday’s game. 11 blocks will do that.
9. High-stepping referee!
— Daniel Scroggins (@palmbeachd) February 19, 2020
10. The path to the program’s 50th SEC title is wide open.
If Kentucky wants regular season title No. 50 and the first since 2017, it is in complete control of its own destiny. LSU was the frontrunner once upon a time, but the Tigers dropped to a tie for third place with little hope for repeating as champs. Auburn is now alone in second behind Kentucky with a rematch coming up in Rupp Arena later this month. UK is in the driver’s seat and back in action Saturday in Lexington against the Gators. Let’s keep this win streak moving.