Santa had already come and gone, but it was Nick Richards that was dolling out the blue-and-white Christmas gifts a few days ahead of the new year. Playing in arguably the biggest game of his time at Kentucky, the misunderstood junior gave Wildcat fans the best possible gift: a career-night against the program’s most-hated rival.
Richards finished the 78-70 overtime win with 13 points – seven of them coming in the extra period – and 10 rebounds on 4-6 shooting from the field while knocking down five important free throws throughout the afternoon. He did all of this while playing the final 14 minutes of action – plus the five minutes in overtime – with four fouls. Down the stretch, he was Kentucky’s best player.
“Demonstrated performance is how you build your own confidence,” John Calipari said after the game in reference to Richards’ impressive showing. “If you build your own confidence no one can take it away except you by being arrogant, I say, stay humble and hungry. If you get arrogant, you’ll go right back in the hole you were in. But demonstrated performance is how you build your own confidence”
After being called for his fourth foul, Richards sat on the bench for the next five minutes of game time before Calipari decided to put him back in. Despite the foul issues that plagued not only Richards, but also EJ Montgomery (four fouls), Tyrese Maxey (four fouls), and Nate Sestina (fouled out), he stayed focused on defense. If anything, Richards’ defensive efforts only improved with the four fouls. The two charges he drew towards the end of the game could have been massively consequential had one of them been called as a block. Kentucky likely doesn’t win this game in overtime without the efforts from Richards.
Once Sestina fouled out, the frontcourt was walking on eggshells but Richards was as disciplined as he’s ever been on both sides of the floor. The lack of confidence that had apparently swallowed the junior in his first two seasons has seemingly vanished. Richards hit two big free throws in overtime that capped off a personal 7-0 run for the big man. When he touched the ball, good things happened, and it’s exactly what his head coach has been asking for.
“And what I told the team is that he has to get the ball, we got to get him [Richards] touches,” Calipari said. “If we can get him touches by how we’re playing, we just got to throw it to him. And Nick, you got to fight for position, so we must throw it to you. We put in a couple little wrinkle stuff for it. But the reality of it is, it was now we are playing. Proud of them, how he played in foul trouble and he still responded.”
Nick Richards with 4 fouls: pic.twitter.com/sNKVeB8UPO
— TJ Beisner (@tjbeisner) December 28, 2019
Richards didn’t dominate the overtime period against just anybody. This wasn’t like his 19 points against Mount St. Mary’s or his 21-point outing in a win over Utah Valley. Coming into Saturday’s game, Richards had posted averages of just 3.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 21 games against ranked opponents. This was his official coming-out party. A statement that declared, “I’m here. I’m ready.”
Richards was the best player on a court he shared with Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, and Steven Enoch – three brutes who have destroyed opponents in the paint through the early stages of the season for UL. Nwora, in particular, felt the presence of Richards, shooting just 2-10 on the day. Richards also drew 11 Cardinal fouls in 34 minutes.
But what makes the 6-foot-11 Richards so likable in this moment is his humility and eagerness to spread his individual achievements across to his team. In the postgame press conference, Richards was asked about his mindset down the stretch and how he “took over” the overtime period, to which he deflected and redirected with praise for his fellow ‘Cats.
“I wouldn’t say I took it over,” Richards said. “My teammates were just being aggressive and whatever missed shots they had I just tried to do my job and try to clean up for them.”
Richards then went on to list Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Montgomery, and Keion Brooks by name, shouting them out for their performances that contributed to the rivalry win.
“I’d probably say this is the most we’ve ever fought as a team,” Richards said.
Nick Richards with the Ls Down after a monumental performance vs. Louisville pic.twitter.com/1qePuBLara
— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) December 28, 2019