Entering the meeting in Lexington, Ole Miss had only beaten Kentucky once all-time in Rupp Arena while the Wildcats owned a commanding series lead of 107-13. Despite sitting at 13-11 and 4-7 in SEC play, the Rebels had been playing some pretty good recent basketball under second year head coach Kermit Davis.
The scoring prowess of stud senior combo guard Breein Tyree was taking up most of the oxygen, but it was actually the play of the Rebels’ defense that was driving this February surge. Ole Miss ranked second in the SEC in defensive efficiency entering the game and had put the clamps on some really good offenses in recent games. They proved that the defensive results weren’t a fluke yesterday afternoon at Rupp Arena.
Despite one of its worst offensive performance of the season, Kentucky found a way to win thanks to some good defense and effort plays in crunch time. Sometimes you just have to find a way to win games like this.
Kentucky scored 67 points in 69 possession while posting 0.97 points per trip. This was Kentucky’s worst offensive performance since the loss to Evansville. UK shot 56.8 percent from two-point range with just 11 turnovers, but the three-point shooting was absolutely atrocious.
After going 11 of 19 in the last two wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt, the Wildcats launched 22 threes with only two makes. The starting guard trio of Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley went a combined 1 of 18 from behind the arc. That is unbelievably bad. The Wildcats are now shooting just 24.4 percent from three in SEC home games despite ranking third in the league in three-point shooting percentage. This has become a streaky group.
The tight win was another game Ashton Hagans will like to forget. The Georgia native scored six points on just 3 of 11 shooting with three turnovers and four assists. UK’s sophomore point guard fouled out for the fourth time in 10 games and keeping him on the floor is becoming an issue. His five three-point attempts were a career-high and there’s probably never a scenario where he should be attempting that many in a game. Kentucky needs him to set the table for everyone else and make lay-ups when they present themselves. He must get back to that identity.
It was another solid outing for UK’s man in the middle with Nick Richards scoring 16 points on 6 of 10 shooting while hitting 4 of 5 free throws. With the game up for grabs, the big guy became a focal point of the offense and he hit some pressure free throws in crunch time. His SEC Player of the Year candidacy is only becoming stronger with each passing game.
With Hagans having an off day, Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey combined for 31 points, but they needed 28 shots to get there. They were ice cold from deep, but each got some important paint buckets while Quickley iced the game with free throws. It wasn’t their best performance of the season, but they were there when the team needed them.
Kentucky got 12 points off the bench with Johnny Juzang hitting a three and Nate Sestina contributing five points in 13 minutes. EJ Montgomery started and played 21 minutes before fouling out. However, he was a team-high plus-10 while on the floor and a huge hustle play allowed UK to score a very important bucket in crunch time. He is beginning to make effort plays every night that helps this team win games.
Kentucky allowed 62 points in 69 possessions with Ole Miss scoring just 0.90 points per trip. After 12 games, UK now ranks second in the SEC in defensive efficiency and they are all of a sudden really good when a team can’t get on the offensive glass. Ole Miss had 12 second chance points on eight offensive rebounds, but everything else was a chore.
On their 24 buckets, Ole Miss was only able to generate three assists as the Wildcats made the Rebels play isolation basketball. That came up big in crunch time when they had to come away with a basket.
Ashton Hagans had just fouled out and in the previous possessions UK’s defense had a hard time slowing down Breein Tyree. Holding just a one-point lead, Immanuel Quickley did a terrific job playing denial defense and that resulted in the star guard not getting a touch. The result was a one-on-one isolation situation for Devontae Shuler against Tyrese Maxey. Maxey was able to force a tough, contested three that never got to the rim. Kentucky won in situations like this all game and it showed in the game’s biggest possession.
Tyree was fresh off a blistering performance against Mississippi State and Kentucky did a terrific job making things difficult for him. The senior finished with 19 points while shooting 6 of 16 from the floor. Nothing came easy for their star and UK was able to win this battle.
Other than the end of the game, Kentucky did a very good job of guarding without fouling with the Rebs just getting to the line 11 times. Ole Miss was unable to effect the game on the offensive glass and at the charity stripe. It is going to be really hard to beat Kentucky when you are inefficient in those two areas.
Close Game Success
In the race for an SEC title, you are going to have to be able to grind out close victories. Over the last two seasons, we have seen LSU be excellent at this and it was the main reason why they brought home their 11th conference regular season title in 2019. In SEC games decided by two possessions or less, the Tigers are 15-4 the last two seasons.
Down on the Plains, we’ve seen Auburn build a gaudy 22-3 record this season thanks in large part to a very bad non-conference schedule. Now, the Tigers are absolutely in the hunt for their second SEC title in three seasons thanks in large part to their success in close games. Bruce Pearl’s sixth Auburn team is 10-0 in games decided by two possessions or less with a 5-0 record in overtime games.
It’s becoming a battle of who can be the best in tight moments.
Heading into yesterday, UK was just 2-4 in games that were decided by two possessions or less or went into overtime. Among those losses were the ugly defeats suffered against Evansville and Utah. Kentucky isn’t blowing teams out this season, but they also weren’t winning games that come down to the wire. In the victory over Ole Miss, they showed some growth by winning a very close game.
To win the SEC and make a deep run in the tournament, they are going to have to win some more close games.
Kentucky now sits at 10-2 in SEC play with sole possession of first place. If you were told on Christmas that this is where UK would be you would have taken it 10 times out of 10. Much like everyone else in college basketball, they have major flaws but they are now winning games while attempting to fix them.
The Wildcats are 12-2 since the losses in Las Vegas with a 4-2 mark in Quad 1 games. They have some obvious warts on their NCAA Tournament resume, but they have played pretty good basketball for about two months now. The cold three-point shooting at home certainly seems like a mystery and the team definitely needs a more consistent Ashton Hagans, but the defense is getting better while the offense has four options that can beat you. UK has a great chance to win their sixth SEC regular season title under John Calipari and big games against Auburn and LSU the next two weeks will play a major role.
On to Baton Rouge.