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Hot Second Half Shot Making Gets UK Closer to 50th SEC Title

© Derick E. Hingle | USATSI

© Derick E. Hingle | USATSI

Kentucky headed into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center with a one-game lead for first place in the SEC with six games remaining. In those final six games, the Wildcats would get to face off with both second place teams Auburn and LSU once. Win both and they would likely hold tiebreakers over each school when it came time for seeding in the SEC Tournament. The toughest appeared to be the meeting with Will Wade’s third LSU team in Baton Rouge.

After a first half where UK could not get the ball to go down on jump shots, the Wildcats exploded by dropping a fiftyburger in the second half while shooting 73.9 percent from the field. The threes finally started to fall and UK has now recorded at least 11 SEC wins in every year but 2011 and 2014 under John Calipari.

Offense

The Wildcats scored 79 points in 67 possessions while posting 1.18 points per trip. It was the fourth time in five games we’ve seen UK reach at least 1.10 points per possession as they are starting to become much more consistent and potent on the offensive end. After a first half that saw them go just 2 of 10 from downtown, the Wildcats responded to hit 7 of 8 in the second half.

The biggest story of the game was the reemergence of Nate Sestina. With EJ Montgomery saddled with first half foul trouble, the senior gave UK some very important minutes in the first half with five big rebounds. In the second half, he knocked down three treys including two on back-to-back possessions to give UK a 15-point lead with 5:14 left to play. He finished with 11 points and eight boards while his 27 minutes played were the highest since the SEC opener against Missouri. He provided floor spacing and shot making.

Immanuel Quickley continues to carry a heavy load for the offense and the sophomore scored 21 points on 12 shots with two three-point makes and five free throws. Since the SEC opener, Quickley has reach the 20-point mark five times now and he’s been UK’s most reliable option on the offensive end. However, he showed some playmaking against LSU by dishing out six assists including one for a big bucket as the shot clock expired in crunch time.

The man on the receiving end of that pass was Nick Richards who scored 13 points on eight shots with four offensive rebounds. Against a undersized but physical LSU frontline, he had to earn his points but he delivered some much needed paint buckets as UK outscored LSU by eight points in the paint.

On the perimeter, Tyrese Maxey scored 14 points on 15 shots while Ashton Hagans finally saw the three-ball go in on his way to scoring 11 points and dishing out four assists. The sophomore point guard had to leave the game with a thigh contusion so his status will be one to follow closely. UK needs him in the lineup and that showed in LSU’s furious late comeback.

It’s funny how everything can look so much better when the threes are falling. Yes, LSU does currently rank dead last in the SEC in defensive efficiency but UK was able to outscore them from the paint and three while going up against one of the sport’s best offenses. That’s a pretty big statement.

Defense

Kentucky allowed 76 points in 67 possessions with LSU posting 1.13 points per trip. Only Auburn has posted a higher number on UK this season and once again the Wildcats were beat by the Tigers on the road with offensive rebounds and free throws.

LSU scored 43 of their 76 points off of second chances and at the charity stripe. Kentucky’s first shot defense held up very strong and they limited the Tigers to shooting just 39.4 percent, but the Tigers rebounded 23 of their 40 misses and hit 17 of 24 free throws. LSU had more offensive rebounds than Kentucky had defensive rebounds (23-20) and that is playing with fire. At this point, it is obvious that taking care of the defensive glass is UK’s biggest flaw and they need to avoid teams that are proficient in this regard when the NCAA Tournament bracket is released.

Nick Richards was big time rim protector in the game recording six blocks and challenging a whole bunch of other shots as the Wildcats recorded 11 blocks in 66 shot attempts. However, the five-man only pulled down two defensive rebounds and no player on Kentucky’s team had more than four. If you were told that coming in you would have thought it would be very unlikely UK would leave the PMAC with a win.

Immanuel Quickley came up big on the defensive end with three steals while forcing LSU guards Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart to shoot just 10 of 22 from the floor. He put together a complete game.

Live Dog

In the John Calipari era, there have not been many seasons where you could get Kentucky as an underdog in a handful of games but this season has been one of them. It started with the first game of the season against Michigan State in the Champions Classic and has again occurred in four of their last six road games. We’ve seen UK be an underdog six times and they have been plucky more times than not.

The Wildcats are 4-2 against the spread in these games with four outright wins. All of those wins have occurred away from Rupp Arena with three happening in true road games (Arkansas, Texas Tech, LSU). The two losses were to Ohio State and Auburn and in each of those games UK had a really good chance to win heading into the final media timeout. Why is this important?

It’s no secret that the computers are not in love with this Kentucky team this season and they currently sit at No. 30 in KenPom despite a 21-5 record with six Quadrant 1 wins. More times than not, the Vegas spreads are pretty much in line with these numbers and that means UK could be a dog in the NCAA Tournament as early as the Round of 32.

Kentucky has proven that they can outperform those numbers and some of their best games have occurred as an underdog. Keep this in mind when the tournament does finally roll around in March.

Outlook

Thanks to a bad non-call last season against LSU, UK lost the SEC regular season title as the Tigers would claim the top spot in the SEC and would win their 11th regular season title and first since 2009. ESPN made sure to bring that up during the broadcast and it was going to be hard for UK get their first SEC title since 2017 if they did not get the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bayou Bengals.

After a rocky first half for both sides, we saw the offenses come alive in the second half with some very impressive shot making. It was UK who had the hotter hand and the result was their 11th SEC victory in 13 tries and the team’s sixth true road win of the season. It’s now time to start looking at Kentucky’s national title potential.

The computers are still down on the Wildcats and that loss to Evansville is likely to have a two-seed line impact with the Purple Aces looking like they could finish the season with 19 consecutive losses. However, it’s getting very hard to not take this team seriously. Since Christmas, the Wildcats are 13-2 with five Quad 1 wins and a 6-2 road record. Their first four is as good as anyone’s and when they get production from the four spot or off the bench they are likely among the best 5-6 national title contenders.

In the wins against Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU we saw UK get some much needed answers in that last spot. EJ Montgomery was the star in a win while Johnny Juzang hit some big threes on the road and finally Nate Sestina gave UK a major lift against LSU. When they get production from one of these three or Keion Brooks Jr. they are extremely hard to beat. Getting the double-digit point production from one is starting to become more consistent and if it becomes a real thing the Wildcats will have a great shot at going the distance when the tournament begins.

On to Florida.

Article written by Adam Luckett

Twitter: @AdamLuckettKSR