Coming off a massive 13-point, 10-rebound game featuring several clutch moments in an overtime victory over Louisville, Nick Richards followed it up with arguably the best performance of his Kentucky career.
To open SEC play against Missouri, the junior center finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks in UK’s 71-59 victory. He started the game with Kentucky’s first nine points and finished the first half with 17 points (7-10 shooting), eight rebounds, and three blocks.
Late in the second half, he put the cherry on top by pulling a Euro-step floater out of his bag of tricks.
Nick Richards in his bag today with this euro step runner. ??? pic.twitter.com/3of8KLybc8
— Not Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton2) January 4, 2020
Now averaging 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.31 blocks on the year, including five games of 15 points or more, Richards has more confidence in his abilities than he has since he first picked up a basketball.
“I felt pretty confident out there,” Richards said after the game. “My teammates put me in the right positions, the right spots to help me be successful on the court. All praise goes to them, they were the ones out there trying to help me get better and help me play confident.”
Richards’ teammate in the frontcourt, Nate Sestina, raved about the 7-foot center’s play in their 2020 SEC debut.
“Nick (Richards) played really well, his first half was incredible,” Sestina said. “He squared up in the post, shot jump shots, rebounded the ball very well, ran up and down the court. He did a lot of stuff people really don’t pay a lot of attention to, when he ran the floor, he opened it up for our guards to drive off of him and his offense was going. So that was something we were able to go to, especially early in the game and his was big for us today.”
Sestina added that the UK coaching staff has been relentless in demanding fight out of the Wildcats, and Richards answered that call against Missouri on Saturday afternoon.
“KP (Kenny Payne) talked about it earlier today before the game about that they were going to fight us in the post, and we would have to fight them in the post,” Sestina said. “If our feet were stuck in the mud, we are not going to get the ball or a good position, so we were going to keep moving, keep our feet moving. Nick (Richards) did a really good job of that early and he was able to get the ball wherever he wanted it to.”
At one point in the second half, that fight got the best of Richards, as the junior big man earned a technical for barking with Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon.
That technical was one of the five fouls he picked up in just 16 minutes of action in the second half.
After the game, Calipari said his junior big man needs to maintain fight and intensity, but stay level-headed.
“Well, here’s the problem,” Calipari said. “Why would you get in a back and forth with another player when you’re playing that well? So he hasn’t come through all the way. Like you have to really look at it and say, why would I go on a back and forth? I’m playing out of my mind — rebounding every ball, making shots, making jump shots, making free-throws, making jump hooks, a big rebound stick back that he got. I mean, I’m proud of him, but, again, now it’s time to — he’s never been this guy.”
Despite the impressive start and overall dominant performance, Richards knows the Kentucky head coach will focus on the technical and unnecessary fouls in the second half during the team’s upcoming film study.
“Yeah, probably,” Richards said. “I let myself get into a little bit of a battle with the other players. Wasn’t smart for me to go back and forth with them, should have just continued to play my game. I could’ve had more points and more rebounds, could have helped my team get an even bigger lead. I guess I didn’t really play that good in the second half.”
Going back to his first half, when asked about “scoring nearly every point” for the Wildcats, Richards was quick to push off the praise and give credit to his Kentucky teammates.
“I wouldn’t say [I scored] every point [in the first half],” he said with grin. “Immanuel [Quickley] also had a really good game, too. He had like 20-something [points]. Ashton [Hagans], he was finding people. Tyrese [Maxey] was doing really good too. Keion [Brooks Jr.] and Kahlil [Whitney], they were giving us really good energy off the bench. EJ [Montgomery] did a lot of good stuff, he blocked some shots today too. Everybody did their part today.”
At the end of the day, a win is a win, and that’s all that matters to the junior big man.
“I think it was vital for us to just come out here and get a win,” Richards said. “We just needed to come out here and show the country that we’re not going to just [get excited about beating] Louisville. We were always going to come out here and try to get better, get a win.”