Head coach John Calipari looked to EJ Montgomery to fill the veteran’s hole, but it was PJ Washington who once again stole the show and ensured his team kept playing at a dominant level.
Kentucky jumped out to a 45-31 halftime lead, but that was just the beginning of one of the most satisfying wins of what’s become a special season. By the 10:46 mark of the second half, Kentucky had jumped out to a 67-34 lead over a top-30 NET team that took the Wildcats down to the wire in The Plains, as if you needed any more proof this team continues to make huge strides as March arrives.
Here are five things to know from the Wildcats’ 80-53 win over Bruce Pearl and his Tigers.
1958 champs honored
Saturday was a special day for many reasons, but perhaps none more than Kentucky honoring the 1958 national title team. Seven representatives of that team made it to Rupp, and they were given miniature NCAA title trophies.
Among the group was Johnny Cox, who is this year’s UK representative for the 2019 SEC Legends Class.
Out here playing like Johnny Cox in his prime. pic.twitter.com/0h3R8kg9CJ— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) February 23, 2019
The current Cats certainly played like a team capable of joining the ‘58 squad as teams who’ve cut down all the nets.
Washington Unstoppable Once Again
PJ Washington again terrorized the opposition from everywhere on the hardwood. Washington took last offseason to add a three point shot to his arsenal and, needless to say, it’s paid off.
The star sophomore took six shots from behind the arc and made four, adding a floater in the paint to score 14 first half-points, which is exactly what the Cats led by at the break. He also did so on just seven shots.
PJ Washington drills another 3. This one with a defender inside his jersey. pic.twitter.com/TDQgLc2TVv— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 23, 2019
In the second half, Washington was able to take more of a back seat as other guys stepped up to blow away the Tigers. He still finished with 24 points, marking the eighth time in the last 10 games he has scored at least 20 points. He also grabbed six boards and had a pair of assists.
It’s time to start talking about Washington being a top-10 pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Heck, if he had been playing like this since Game 1, he’d be in the discussion for a top-five pick. That’s how special he’s playing right now.
No Travis, No Problem
The absence of Reid Travis was a rational cause for concern, especially against a smaller Auburn team that Kentucky could have used his bulk body to dominate inside. However, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards combined for six blocks to protect the rim on defense.
EJ Montgomery with his third swat. pic.twitter.com/JdlkK1t9aE— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 23, 2019
On offense, Washington had the paint scoring covered, and the sudden fire from Tyler Herro behind the arc bandaged the hole left by Kentucky’s interior absence. It was just one game, but head coach John Calipari once again drew up a masterful game plan.
On the boards, no one stepped up more than Keldon Johnson, who racked up a career-high 17 rebounds while also chipping in five assists. With Travis out, Johnson played more at the 4 in this game, something he’ll have to do more as long as the senior is out. So far, so good in that regard.
Herro Catches Fire
Tyler Herro has shown he’s so much more than a spot up shooter. His ability to beat defenders off the bounce, defend off and on the ball as well as rebound the basketball has really shown in Calipari’s system.
However, on Saturday, it was Herro’s outburst from behind the arc that had fans cheering. Herro swished three shots from behind the arc in the first half alone and finished with 17 points on 6/12 shooting and 3/6 from deep.
Tyler Herro knocks down the corner 3 just before the half. pic.twitter.com/7dHBwE7Amd— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 23, 2019
While it’s significant Herro brings a multi-dimensional game to the court, his ability to sink three pointers is an art. It also helps to see him playing great at home when most of his best performances have been away from Rupp. With Travis out, Herro needs to play like this every game moving forward.
Hagans Bounces Back
Ashton Hagans has more than struggled over recent weeks. His turnovers have drastically increased and his defense hasn’t been as effective. However, on Saturday, Hagans was back to his former self by scoring 14 and dishing out five assists and significantly limiting Auburn’s backcourt. Hagans also continues to make big strides when it comes to his jumper, as he went 2/4 from deep today.
Oooooh weeeee.— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 23, 2019
Ashton Hagans with the euro step. pic.twitter.com/5LFRGjCVPo
When locked in, Hagans is arguably the country’s best on-ball defender. His ability to distribute the basketball and exercise his quickness getting to the hole also takes Calipari’s offense to another level.
Ashton Hagans on FIRE! pic.twitter.com/f4W27Ts3PY— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) February 23, 2019
Kentucky (23-4) will host Arkansas (14-12) on Tuesday night at 9 pm EST.