It wasn’t always pretty – especially in the second half – but the Kentucky Wildcats did just enough to pull off the 69-58 victory over the UAB Blazers on Saturday evening to move to 6-1 on the season.
Here were some of the key takeaways from the victory:
Nick Richards is playing his way into the first round
After yet another impressive effort on both ends of the floor, it’s time to start taking Nick Richards seriously as a potential first round draft selection.
Finishing with 16 points (7-7 shooting), nine rebounds, and a block, the 6-foot-11 center out of Kingston, Jamaica was a force once again on both ends of the floor. Between finishing lobs, knocking down open baseline jumpers, and contesting shots at the rim, Richards not only played up to his status as a former five-star, top-ranked center, but he’s now doing it on a regular basis.
After his 25-point, 15-rebound performance just six games into his Kentucky career back in 2017, the Kentucky center broke the double-digit point barrier in just seven games out of a possible 68 through the 2018-19 season.
This year, Richards has finished with at least ten points and six rebounds in five of Kentucky’s seven game, at least 16 points and six rebounds in four games, and double-doubles in three games.
He’s playing with aggressiveness and confidence, two characteristics he didn’t have in either of his first two seasons in Lexington. And with that aggressiveness and confidence, he’s playing like a first-rounder.
EJ Montgomery has a career night
As consistent as Richards has been throughout the year, we’ve still been waiting for a breakout performance from his frontcourt counterpart, EJ Montgomery.
And tonight, we finally saw what the former five-star, top-ten recruit is capable of on a nightly basis.
Finishing with 16 points (7-13 shooting), eight rebounds, and two blocks, Montgomery put forth the best outing of his young Kentucky career. In fact, it was just the third time he finished in double figures and the third time he managed eight or more rebounds in a single game. He also surpassed his previous career high in minutes (28) with 31 in the victory.
He showed off a smooth jumper during the NBA Draft process last offseason, and for the first time during his time in Lexington, he proved he could do it consistently in a college game. Outside of that, he was active around the rim on both ends of the floor and showed aggressiveness in clean-up opportunities.
Kentucky needs production from Montgomery in a major way if they want to make a serious run this season, so tonight was a step in the right direction.
Ashton Hagans flirted with John Wall’s assist record
John Wall holds the Kentucky record for most assists in a single game, and for a brief period, it looked as if Hagans was making a run for it.
At halftime, the sophomore point guard had eight assists, but “only” managed four in the second half to bring his total to 12 on the evening. The only other time he broke the ten assist mark in his career was against Tennessee in the SEC Tournament last year when he also finished with 12.
Going into tonight, Hagans had shown off a knack for driving to the basket and finishing at the rim or getting to the line. But then tonight, he took his play a step forward by driving to the rim and taking on defenders before tossing it off to both Richards and Montgomery for easy baskets at the rim. In short, Hagans made life quite difficult for the UAB defenders from start to finish.
Keion Brooks Jr., not Kahlil Whitney, replaced Nate Sestina’s production
When Kentucky announced earlier in the week that graduate transfer Nate Sestina had suffered a fractured wrist and would miss the next several weeks, John Calipari said during the following press conference that he expected freshman wing Kahlil Whitney to slid down to the four and shine in Sestina’s absence.
Whitney, though, finished with just two points (0-5 shooting), two rebounds, and two assists in the victory, struggling to find his shot and looking uncomfortable in the process.
Instead, it was Keion Brooks Jr. who impressed at the position, finishing with five points (2-5 shooting, 1-1 from three), four rebounds, and an assist. While the numbers weren’t drastically different, Brooks was in position to score on several transition plays, fought for loose balls, and grabbed several tough rebounds.
Here was the official minute distribution from the victory with Sestina out:
- Hagans – 34
- Maxey – 33
- Montgomery – 31
- Richards – 27
- Brooks – 21
- Quickley – 21
- Whitney – 19
- Juzang – 12
Calipari continued to praise Whitney after the game and said his time would be coming soon, but tonight, it was Brooks who shined when the opportunities presented themselves.
Another opponent gets hot at Rupp Arena
Another day, another game that an opponent comes into Rupp Arena and torches the nets.
As a team, the Blazers shot just 41.4% overall, but somehow managed to shoot 50% (8-16 from three), including 7-9 from just two players (Jalen Benjamin and Tyreek Scott-Grayson).
Kentucky defended well as a whole and made stops when they mattered most to force runs, but UAB continued to be a thorn in UK’s backside from deep.
On that note…
Blazers hang around (and Wildcats fail to cover)
With 10:24 to go in the game, Kentucky had pushed its lead to 18 points (56-38), well on pace to beat the spread (UK -20). And then after the Blazers cut the lead down to 13, the Wildcats pushed it back up to 20 with 4:29 remaining (67-47).
Three 3-pointers and a layup later, and the Blazers had cut the lead to just 11 with 1:10 to go.
The game was never in jeopardy, but with several opportunities to put UAB away for good, the Blazers continued to fight back in a “why won’t they just die” situation.
Luckily, the Wildcats performed well enough to pull off the victory and move to 6-1 on the year, with their next matchup coming against the Farleigh Dickinson Knights (1-5) next Saturday.