In the team’s third SEC matchup, Kentucky managed to take down the Alabama Crimson Tide by a final score of 76-67 to move to 12-3 on the year.
There were many positives from the victory, but what were the top takeaways?
Tale of two halves
In the first half, Alabama led for just 20 seconds total, with Kentucky pushing ahead by as many as 13 points with just 30 seconds to go. To open the second half, the Wildcats went on a quick 7-2 run to push the lead to 15 with 17:12 to go.
From there, the Crimson Tide scored three consecutive times to cut the lead to single digits, and outside of a made free throw to push it back to ten with 14:47 to go, Kentucky failed to extend the lead to double digits once again. Alabama would then get it down to four points on five separate occasions and three points twice.
A key reason for the struggles? The Tide thriving on the offensive glass and finding easy baskets inside. Kentucky managed to find success on the first attempt, but with 16 offensive rebounds on the afternoon, Alabama was able to get easy second looks and cut the lead.
Hot shooting to close out the second half allowed the Wildcats to win by nine, but it was a little too close for comfort from the 7:31 mark (five-point lead) to the 2:14 mark (three-point lead).
Immanuel Quickley is clutch from deep (again)
Off the bench once again, Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley came up big from deep, finishing with a team-high 19 points on 6-10 shooting and 5-6 from three to go with five rebounds, three assists, and a steal.
In particular, Quickley is 14 of his last 23 from three, good for 61% overall. Over his last two games, the sophomore guard is 8-9 (89%) from deep.
Up by four with one minute to go, Quickley drilled a three to push the lead to seven, ultimately icing the game. Outside of the final clutch three, he also hit one with 17:12 to go in the second half to give UK its biggest lead of the game at 15 and one with 4:33 to go to give the Cats a six-point lead (up from Alabama’s smallest deficit in the second half).
He’s been shooting lights out from three, but most importantly, he’s hitting the shots in big moments.
Nick Richards is a legitimate first-rounder. Seriously.
No matter how much we continue to rave about Nick Richards and his growth as a player both physically and mentally, he continues to raise the bar every time he steps out on the floor.
Finishing with 13 points on 5-11 shooting to go with 11 rebounds, five blocks, and an assist, Richards was the best player on the floor in the first half. And at this point, his success is not even a common theme, it’s an expectation.
Outside of his jump-hooks and dunks on alley-oops and put-backs, he’s also growing more and more confident as a shooter from 15-17 feet out.
At one point late in the first half, Richards knocked down back-to-back jumpers from the right corner baseline, and he launched them with zero hesitation. With the NBA quickly transitioning to needing five players on the floor with shooting potential, that is the key for Richards to separate himself from the late-first, early-second to late-lottery, mid-first in the draft. He has the rim-running, rebounding, and shot-blocking ability as a 7-footer, and the shooting consistency is quickly starting to follow.
His second half was relatively underwhelming until coming up with several huge rebounds and defensive stops in the game’s final minutes, but I will never complain about a 13-11-5 game from Richards. The team needs it.
Ashton Hagans with the near triple-double
Just one game after playing 36 minutes with an ankle sprain at Georgia, Kentucky sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans followed it up with an impressive 15 points (4-10 shooting, 1-2 from three), nine rebounds, nine assists, and three steals in 36 minutes against Alabama.
Hagans was a bit out of control at times, racking up four turnovers, but his ability to lead this team in the right direction continues to turn heads.
After the game, John Calipari said Hagans’ 15-9-9 performance actually wasn’t his best, adding that it’s only because he expects those numbers every time he steps on the floor.
Whether Calipari likes it or not, I’ll take it all day, every day.
EJ Montgomery’s confidence is growing
While Richards has been impressive all season, EJ Montgomery is the one member of the frontcourt we’ve been waiting all year on. He’s shown spurts of success, but the consistency just hasn’t been there.
Today, Montgomery launched two comfortable jumpers from 15-17 feet out, the first coming with 17:07 in the first half and the second coming with 7:11 to go before break. In the second half, he followed it up with an easy lay-in down low, followed by a beautiful floater coming from the right baseline. In terms of shooting, it was the sophomore forward’s most confident display since the Utah loss in Las Vegas, when he demanded the ball and drilled mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper.
The confidence bled through on the box score outside of counting stats, as well, as Montgomery was also a team-high plus-19 on the day.
With Richards leading the way in the frontcourt, Montgomery’s game this afternoon was the perfect complementary performance on the offensive end of the floor. As mentioned before, they’re still rough around the edges in terms of giving up head-scratching baskets and offensive rebounds, but the unit as a whole continues to make steps
Nate Sestina knows his role
When Kentucky brought on Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina, the expectation was that the 6-foot-9 forward would be the third big man on the roster and a key player off the bench.
With Richards and Montgomery finding success, Sestina was able to be that player this afternoon, finishing with six points (2-3 from three), four rebounds, two blocks, and a steal in 18 minutes.
For Kentucky to win a title, Montgomery has to continue to grow into the second-year star coaches hyped him up to be going into the season, with Richards continuing to put up numbers from the center position. From there, Sestina can be a catch-and-shoot big off the bench and provide much-needed depth.
Calipari can continue to experiment with the three-guard lineup of Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, and Tyrese Maxey to go with Nate Sestina and Nick Richards, but the team has its highest potential on both ends of the court when Montgomery sees the majority of minutes between the two. It’s apparent Calipari sees the team’s long-term success relies on that rotation, and tonight’s minute breakdown and was a solid indicator of that.
Baby steps with Kahlil Whitney
The rollercoaster ride that is Kahlil Whitney’s freshman season in Lexington continues.
But when push comes to shove, today’s ride was an ever-so-slight step in the right direction.
In eight minutes off the bench in the first half, Whitney finished with zero points on 0-3 shooting, one rebound, one assist, and one turnover. From that point on, he would enter the game just twice in the second half, playing for 50 seconds total.
During his limited time on the floor, though, Whitney was active, attacked the rim instead of floating on the perimeter, tried to jump the passing lane, and locked in on defense (most of the time).
At the 14:12 mark in the second, he also swatted a clean shot on John Petty, but was called for a foul on the play.
It wasn’t a pretty performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a slight step forward nonetheless.
“I was so happy for Kahlil [Whitney] today,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “That’s what I want him to do.”