This was supposed to be Anthony Edwards and Georgia’s big night. Coming off a win at No. 9 Memphis, the Bulldogs had Stegeman Coliseum rocking, with celebrities like Trae Young, rapper Quavo, and Adrian Wojnarowski in the house and an ESPN primetime audience watching at home. Unfortunately for them, Kentucky didn’t follow the script.
The Cats clawed their way back from a six-point halftime deficit to beat the Bulldogs 78-69. That score is a little deceptive; for most of the game, the two teams traded punches, the momentum swinging back and forth like a tournament game. Kentucky trailed for over 23 minutes, battling foul trouble and uncharacteristic woes from the free-throw line, but with eight minutes left, took the lead and refused to let go, resulting in the first true road win of the season.
Let’s go over it, because it was pretty awesome.
Tyrese Maxey had his moment
Kentucky’s entire backcourt was amazing tonight, but let’s start with Tyrese Maxey. All of the hype coming into this game centered around Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, arguably the most talented freshman in college basketball. Maxey must have taken offense to that because he stole part of the spotlight, putting up 17 points (7-15), seven rebounds, eight assists, and four blocks in 39 minutes. As that stat line suggests, Maxey didn’t just deliver with buckets; he played tough defense, hustled, got crucial boards, and put his teammates in position to score, looking like a freshman who is starting the turn the corner as so many of Calipari’s players do.
Case in point: with 13:45 left in the second half, Edwards made sure to let Maxey know he was “too little” after getting the best of him on this drive.
Anthony Edwards let Tyrese Maxey know he's too small ? pic.twitter.com/5A6lxQj1Xa
— ESPN (@espn) January 8, 2020
“Yeah, we’re going to have to have a conversation about that,” Maxey said of the gesture by Edwards, whom he’s known for years. “I’m going to call him as soon as I get off the plane. At the end of the day, we had more points than them, so it’s all good.”
Ashton Hagans is a tough man
Last year, Ashton Hagans showed us how much the Georgia game means to him, going off for a then career-high 23 points in Athens. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hagans refused to let a sprained ankle stop him from playing in his home state against the school to which he used to be committed. Hagans finished with 13 points, five assists, and four steals in 36 minutes, good numbers for a player with two healthy ankles, let alone one. He now has 11 straight games with at least five assists, the best run since Tyler Ulis dished out five or more in 24 straight games in the 2015-16 season.
In the first half, most of us were begging for Hagans to stop firing threes, but he hit a big one to cut Georgia’s lead to six going into halftime. That didn’t stop Edwards and the Bulldogs from celebrating like they’d won the national title:
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
Georgia’s 37-31 halftime lead: Coming soon to a popcorn box near you, Bulldog fans!
Back to Hagans. After the game, he was spotted leaving the arena in a walking boot, further proof his ankle wasn’t 100%.
“He could’ve fallen off a bridge and it wouldn’t have mattered,” Immanuel Quickley said of Hagans. “He wasn’t missing this game.”
Big Shot Quick
For the third game in a row, Immanuel Quickley stepped up in a big way. The sophomore guard came off the bench to score 15 points, including three three-pointers. His streak of 24 straight free throws ended on his first trip to the charity stripe (thanks for the jinx, Jay Bilas), but he hit his other two, and his three to put Kentucky up by one with eight minutes left changed the momentum of the game. His final three with four minutes left pushed the lead to five and gave the Cats some much needed breathing room.
Here’s an impressive stat from Corey Price: Quickley scored at least 15 points in four of his first 47 games at Kentucky. He’s scored at least 15 points in his last three. If he can keep up that production, Kentucky’s backcourt is one of the best in the country.
Fouls — and free throws — were costly
If not for Quickley’s big threes, I might be writing about how fouls and missed free throws doomed the Cats. Kentucky came into this game ranked third in the country in free-throw percentage, connecting on over 80% of their attempts. Tonight, they were 10-20 (50%), a number prettied up in the final minutes when Georgia kept sending them to the line. In the first half, Kentucky was 1-3 from the free throw line, while Georgia was 8-14. Both Nick Richards and Nate Sestina battled foul trouble in the first half, which allowed the Bulldogs to capitalize on mismatches in the post and go up by as many as nine before Ashton’s three to cut it to six at halftime.
I don’t bring up fouls and free throws to complain about the officiating — we don’t do that here — but instead to point out that Kentucky winning in spite of them makes tonight’s performance even more impressive.
Nick Richards restored order in the second half
I think it’s time for us to stop marveling at the fact that Nick Richards is this team’s rock. We saw how much Kentucky suffered when Richards was in foul trouble in the first half. Once he was back in after halftime, order was restored to Kentucky’s offense. Spacing improved. Driving lanes opened up. The guards were able to throw it in for easy buckets. Richards finished with 17 points and seven rebounds off 8-11 from the floor, winning the Bill Keightley Award from the UK Atlanta Alumni Club as the game’s most valuable player. The Cats are is 10-0 this season when he scores in double figures.
“We don’t have a matchup for Nick Richards,” Tom Crean said after the game. “We didn’t do a great job on a lot of their guys, but Nick Richards changed the game.”
We may have found our lineup
The final piece of the puzzle tonight was Nate Sestina, who chipped in eight points and seven rebounds off the bench. It’s not a coincidence that Kentucky played its best basketball with Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Immanuel Quickley, Nate Sestina, and Nick Richards on the floor at the same time. Sestina excelled at the stretch four, hitting a crucial three to cut Georgia’s lead to one two minutes into the second half. After Calipari subbed him in for EJ Montgomery with five minutes left, he had four points, three rebounds, and an assist to help seal the win. There’s still plenty of time to tinker with lineups (and for EJ Montgomery, Keion Brooks, and/or Kahlil Whitney to step up), but it’s hard to argue with this one.
“What I did in the second half, just so you know, the three guards and the two fresh big guys, which were Nick and Nate because they didn’t play that much [in the first half]. I rode them,” Cal said afterwards. “Just said, ‘How much can you play?’ And what’s amazing, they don’t want to come out and I’m good with it. Play. They made the plays. They made the defensive stops. We rebounded the ball.”
If this is my team, I like it.