Kentucky hit the road for the first time this season and they were playing in a venue they’ve had a lot of success in. Following another road dub in Stegeman Coliseum, the Wildcats now have 102 more wins than Georgia in the series as John Calipari improved to 18-2 against the Bulldogs. UK extended their winning streak to 14 games over UGA with Tom Crean falling to 2-17 in SEC play.
After a rocky first 20 minutes where we saw Georgia players talking smack and popping their jerseys heading into the locker room, UK responded with their best offensive half of the season as they slowly pulled away from the Dawgs.
Georgia forgot there was a second half. Oh, and that they were playing Kentucky. What a damn half. pic.twitter.com/XSaw9IOp6I
— Bobby Reagan (@BarstoolReags) January 8, 2020
Kentucky scored 78 points on 73 possessions to put up a solid 1.07 points per trip. However, the team usually dependent on two-pointers and free throws needed a little help tonight. The Wildcats shot just 50 percent on their 50 two-point attempts while one of the finest free throw shooting teams went just 10 of 20 from the charity stripe. The deep ball was needed and UK poured in six makes on 12 attempts.
Entering the season, a lot of people thought that Kentucky could have one of college basketball’s finest backcourts and they played like it in Athens. Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley combined for 45 points, hit five threes, collected 14 rebounds, dished out 15 assists, had five steals and four blocks. To say they were spectacular would be an understatement.
Maxey led the way with 17 points on 15 shots and he flirted with a triple-double (seven rebounds, eight assists, four blocks). He remains one of the best big game players in the country and without interior size from Georgia, floaters and lay-ups were there for him once he turned the corner. Ashton Hagans dished out at least five assists for the 11th consecutive game and the sophomore played well once again in Athens. UK’s floor general was on the floor for 36 minutes on a bum ankle while contributing 13 points. Immanuel Quickley’s hot three-point shooting continues as the sophomore has hit 9 of his last 17 attempts. His average is now up to 37.5 percent as he’s becoming the knockdown shooter this club needs.
On the interior, Nick Richards had another big game scoring 17 points on 11 shots in just 25 minutes thanks to foul trouble. Next to him, EJ Montgomery played one of his best games of the season. The sophomore big played with effort while giving Kentucky seven rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes. However, the story of the game was the second half play from grad transfer Nate Sestina.
The Bucknell transfer finished with just eight points, but he grabbed seven boards in 20 minutes and made plenty of hustle plays that won’t make the stat sheet. He got the surprise start to begin the second half and poured in a three before the first media timeout. The halftime adjustment from Cal worked and Sestina played a monster role in Kentucky winning on the road.
Kentucky allowed 69 points on 73 possessions giving up just 0.95 point per trip to a very explosive offensive team. The Bulldogs made just five threes while Anthony Edwards needed 17 shots to score 23 points. As we saw on the floor, he can be a dynamic scorer but the NBA prospect falls in love with his jumper a little too easily. On the night, nine of his field goal attempts occurred beyond the arc despite shooting just 31.4 percent on the season.
The next best player on UGA’s roster is small ball five Rayshaun Hammonds and for the Bulldogs to pull the upset he was going to have to play well. The Dawgs are at their best when the 6-foot-9 lefty is putting the ball in the hole and UK was able to put the clamps on the junior. Hammonds had just nine points while shooting 2 of 9 from the field. The Bulldogs are just 2-3 when he doesn’t score in double-digits and in their three best wins he’s averaging 20.7 points with at least nine rebounds in each outing. He had just four rebounds in 24 minutes in addition to fouling out of the game. He’s the guy UK had to stop and the Dawgs become much easier to defend when he’s not putting the ball in the basket.
They were able to stop Hammonds, but Tom Crean’s club got some big minutes from their role players. Jordan Harris scored a season-high 10 points and the senior wing provided energy plays that kept the crowd loud and engaged. Outside of him, however, no one else really hurt Kentucky.
Once again, Ashton Hagans was a menace on the defensive end who created a ton of havoc but he got some help. In the backcourt, Hagans and Maxey created five steals and produced with five blocks. The UK guard play was just outstanding.
Kentucky found itself trailing at halftime and that deficit could be blamed on some foul issues. Both Nick Richards and Nate Sestina missed meaningful minutes in the first half before they both made a big impact in the second 20 minutes of the road victory. We’ve talked about some of their numbers above, but the plus/minus advanced stat helps us tell a little big more of the story.
Richards and Sestina both finished with a game-high plus-14 as they were each on the floor for important stretches of the second half. Sestina got the start after the break and made an immediate impact while Richards picked up a third foul early, but was able to play the rest of the way without any issues. The near 7-footer provided UK with some easy offense as he was wide open and an easy target for UK’s guards once they broke down the Georgia defense with dribble penetration.
The guards made the biggest impact on the game, but the big men lead the way and have to do the dirty work. The two upperclassmen provided some toughness and size inside to allow Kentucky to take advantage of a small UGA interior.
There is no hiding from the fact that UK’s offense has had its fair share of issues. Shooting has been a struggle all season and finding consistent offense when the shots aren’t falling has been a grind. The Wildcats have gone through some major growing pains, but it seemed like the light bulb flickered on in the second half.
UK scored 47 points in the last 20 minutes while shooting 58.6 percent from two-point range and knocking in four threes. If it wasn’t for some crummy free throw shooting team (9 of 17) the numbers could be much bigger. For much of the year we have seen the offense be efficient but not explosive or vice versa. In the second half in Athens, the Wildcats were efficient from two and explosive from three. This was a sight for sore eyes.
Keep growing on defense and Cal’s 11th basketball team at the University of Kentucky could have something as SEC play progresses. Roles are being defined and players are starting to grow. There is the streakiness factor to work through, but it’s starting to feel like the team is moving beyond that.
On to Alabama.