Saturday’s win at West Virginia wasn’t just a turning point for Kentucky’s season, but also a breakthrough moment for several players.
That didn’t appear to be the case in the first half, especially for Nick Richards. A missed dunk, a turnover, three rebounds and two fouls led to Richards being a net negative in what turned into a 45-33 halftime deficit.
It looked like Richards was in line for another forgettable night, something we’ve seen a lot of recently from the freshman big man. But something changed this time around.
Instead of going into a shell, Richards came out and fought like hell in the second half, recording five boards, eight points and a block while altering more shots.
That included a game-sealing tip dunk in the final minute, and it had the whole team mobbing him in the postgame locker room.
“You ready for this? They mobbed Nick (Richards),” John Calipari said Monday. “And I said, ‘Nick, now you know. They all are happy for you. They all want you to do well.’
Sophomore Wenyen Gabriel was proud to see how much his teammate grew up in the most hostile environment Richards will face.
“Nick came up real big for us (Saturday),” said Gabriel on Monday. “He had a growing-up moment (Saturday) at the game and he started dunking the ball, getting rebounds. You just saw the fight. We always knew he had in him. He has the ability to do it. Just to see blossom in that type of environment was real big for us.”
Another player who took a big step forward in Morgantown was Hamidou Diallo. His issue has largely been his defense this season. Sure, his offense runs hot and cold, but that’s expected. He’s made a ton of progress from just being an athletic dunker in high school with a very flawed jumper, making it hard for a shooting guard to be consistent on offense.
But what Diallo could have been more consistent with the whole time was his defense. However, this has been an area Diallo struggled in mightily at times, which is unacceptable for a player with his abilities.
Diallo has the potential to lock down just about any guard he’ll face in college basketball, and that includes special ones like Jevon Carter.
The Mountaineers’ star guard torched the Wildcats in the first half to the tune of 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-4 from deep.
That’s when Diallo took it upon himself to make an impact on defense and defend Carter in the second half, which helped spark Kentucky’s rally from 17 down.
“Hamidou was great. The biggest thing he did, he went to guard the guard – ‘I got him (Carter).’ And then he took pride in it,” said Calipari. “Now he has never done that, and I’ve watched him in high school. To get screened, you score on him, ‘That’s OK.’ No, this was you are not scoring on me.
“And I told him in front of the team, it was the first time I’ve seen you do it. Big step for him. That’s a big step. Why shouldn’t you be one of the best defenders? And not foul, don’t get screened, don’t come over with an excuse. The guy scored on you three straight times. In that game, no, there was no excuse. I’m guarding this guy. I was proud of him.
In the second half, Carter only scored eight points on 3-of-10 shooting and didn’t hit a three. In turn, the Mountaineers scored just 29 points, and Diallo played a big part in that.
He wasn’t too shabby on offense either, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the second half. He was the superior guard to Carter in that half, which is really saying something for a redshirt freshman compared to a senior who’s played in 128 career games.
All told, this was a major step forward for a Kentucky team that clearly has enough talent to compete with anyone. Now, it’s just a matter of harnessing it, something we saw them begin to do in Morgantown.