The Wildcats got the job done in Knoxville, pulling off a 77-64 victory over Tennessee to move to 18-5 on the year and 8-2 in conference play.
What are the top takeaways from the impressive road victory?
The streak is over
After four consecutive losses at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Kentucky basketball program found a way to pull off its first victory at Tennessee since the 2014-15 season, coming out on top with a 77-64 win.
It wasn’t easy, with Kentucky pulling ahead by ten points on separate occasions and Tennessee cutting that lead to single digits nine of those times.
On that tenth attempt, though, Kentucky finally found away to extend that lead past the double-digit mark and bring it home in the form of a 13-point victory.
Through the madness of a tough road environment, the Cats held strong, and they were rewarded with a streak-ending victory.
Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards continue their consistent – and impressive – play
It has been rather easy (albeit unfortunate) to avoid writing about Quickley and Richards in these takeaway posts and postgame features because the veteran duo has simply raised our expectations this season. They have been so consistently productive that stat lines like 18 points (5-9 shooting, 6-7 FT) for Quickley and 15 points (5-5 shooting, 5-6 FT) and seven rebounds for Richards are simply what we expect to see out of each of them every time they suit up.
The fact of the matter is, as impressive as Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans have been at various points this season at the guard spot, along with EJ Montgomery picking up his play in recent weeks, Quickley and Richards are quite possibly the two most consistent and valuable players on the roster.
In clutch situations late in the game, they came through, When Kentucky needed to end a scoring drought, they came through. At the free throw line, they came through.
Credit is due to the sophomore and junior pairing this afternoon, as it has been all season. Well done.
Johnny Juzang has found his shooting touch
“Johnny Juzang has been a serious difference-maker here for Kentucky,” CBS commentator Bill Raftery said with just under 17 minutes to go in the second half.
He wasn’t wrong.
Finishing with 13 points on 4-4 shooting, 3-3 from three, and 2-2 from the line, to go with one rebound, one assist, and one steal in a season-high 24 minutes, the freshman guard managed his best game as a Kentucky Wildcat.
Going into today’s matchup, Juzang had yet to make more than one three in a single game this season. He hadn’t even taken more than two.
Breaking the 20-minute mark just twice this year, opportunities for the 6-foot-6 guard have been limited. To make matters worst, his stints on the floor have been short-lived, as his leash with UK head coach John Calipari has been extremely short. After a single defensive breakdown, missed shot, turnover, or foul, Juzang had been pulled in favor of one of the team’s key starters. The trust simply hasn’t been there.
Today, though, we saw a breakthrough for both parties. Calipari trusted Juzang enough to deliver and work through the kinks, and given the opportunity, the freshman guard didn’t let him down.
Kentucky has been looking for bench production, and they got it out of Juzang today.
Keion Brooks Jr. was phenomenal off the bench
While Juzang stole the show on the score board, Keion Brooks Jr. also proved to be incredibly valuable in his specific role off the bench.
Finishing with four points on 2-5 shooting to go with a career-high nine rebounds in 26 minutes, Brooks was extremely active on both ends of the floor, specifically in fighting for balls on the glass.
Offensively, Brooks converted on two put-back attempts, and almost got another impressive shot from the post to fall (Richards followed the miss with a put-back slam). He gets carried away at times with long twos, but when it comes to floating around inside, he has a knack for getting the job done in some form or fashion. Whether it be in cleanup opportunities or when he is asked to make a move in the post at the four, Brooks’ growing confidence is turning into converted baskets.
Juzang and Brooks remained patient, trusted the process, and are now reaping the rewards.
Crazy how that works at Kentucky.
It’s time to talk about Ashton Hagans and Nate Sestina
Earlier this season, Calipari told the media that he felt Hagans was the best point guard in college basketball.
Over the past several weeks, though, to say the sophomore guard has been struggling would be an understatement.
Running the Kentucky offense, Hagans has been a turnover machine, coughing up the ball 22 times compared to just 25 assists in UK’s last five games.
Against Tennessee, he finished with 10 points on 2-8 shooting to go with four rebounds, three assists, and a steal to go with five turnovers. On the surface, it’s not a horrible stat line, but those watching the game would know that UK seemed to struggle putting points on the board and got incredibly sloppy with Hagans leading the way. In fact, if it weren’t for Maxey missing on two crucial passes during his time as the lead guard with Hagans on the bench, I wouldn’t have been shocked at all to see Calipari move forward with the freshman star to close out the game as the primary ball-handler.
It’s tough to pinpoint where Hagans’ struggles are coming from outside of playing too fast and forcing the issue far too option. At his best, Hagans is patient, methodical, and makes the correct decision more often than not, solidifying his status as one of the best point guards in college basketball. At his worst, he’s borderline unplayable at times.
As for Sestina, the graduate transfer put up his second zero-point performance in three games, playing just eight minutes in the win. He hasn’t finished in double figures in 12 games and has failed to break the five rebound mark in nine consecutive outings.
Going scoreless on zero shot attempts to go with one rebound, one turnover, and four fouls in a team-low eight minutes, Sestina simply didn’t contribute enough in his time on the floor. They don’t need him to be a major producer, but the Wildcats need at least a couple key buckets and rebounds out of the Bucknell graduate each outing to close out the season.
Rebounding was (mostly) back
Finishing with 33 rebounds compared to Tennessee’s 29, Kentucky won the glass in a difficult road environment, something they couldn’t do last weekend at Auburn.
They still fell short on the offensive glass – the Volunteers won in that regard with a 12-7 lead – but it was an effort across the board that should still please the coaching staff after reviewing film.
We’re on to Vanderbilt.