My friends Noah and Ben and I watched the game Saturday together with fellow rowdy BBN-ers in a B-Dubs-esque establishment. And about two or three minutes into the game, the place erupted after that first Nick Richards putback slam. High fives and hollers all around.
Ben, a Canadian-born kid from Virginia, was baffled: “Why do you all high five after big plays? They don’t do that anywhere else.”
No, they don’t, Ben. But this is Kentucky, and in Kentucky, sports are a religion. The bond Kentuckians have with their football and basketball team is as strong as family, stronger even, sometimes. It is our identity, and after nights like Saturday, basketball brings out the absolute best of Kentucky, the communal euphoria of winning a MASSIVE road game.
And just one day after their shoulda-been one-and-done freshman teammate aborted Lexington, two sophomores, a junior and a fifth-year senior dragged Kentucky to victory in as hostile an environment as they’ll ever face; professionally, college or otherwise.
Texas Tech fans—God love their passion!—even out-screamed Arkansas from last weekend and absolutely put to shame anything Rupp Arena has produced this year. Free beer for students, folks tented out the night before, in-person reporters agreeing that it was the most raucous home crowd they’d seen all year. Just like last week and just like next week for Kentucky.
And, as the Cats do under their swashbuckling leader, their came into your town and beat your team, comically horrendous officiating and all. Sorry, Texas Tech fans, for winning your Super Bowl. Kentucky’s happens to occur a couple months from now.
“Everybody has their own story” said Nick at the podium after yet another Game Of His Career: 25 points, 14 rebounds, 4 blocks, several powerful dunks, and a flurry of clutch free throws, including the two which cemented the final score, 76-74. His story is the best of the John Calipari era. He really is Andy Dufresne.
Richards crawled through two years of turd-smelling foulness I can’t even imagine and came out an all-time beloved figure on the other side. People mocked him, called him beyond-wretched names on Twitter because he couldn’t grab a rebound in a basketball game and some even asked he not return after his rocky sophomore season.
Saturday night, with the game tied 74-74 in overtime following another blown 10-point lead, Richards stopped a exasperated Immanuel Quickley and gleamed “I got this” as he settled into the free throw line to sink the game winners, his 24th and 25th points.
It’s one of those ‘wow’ sports moments, that a kicked-to-the-curb-by-his-own-fans Jamaican KID stayed the course at a one and done factory, ate all the vulgar trash fans talked to him and developed into one of the best big men in college basketball—one who will change his family for generations to come with the money he will make playing basketball.
We love ya, Nick! And the good ones always did.
I usually write the players in order of who played best, so Ashton is second. I don’t care that he had four turnovers, routine poor decisions, and contributed just six points on 2/6 shooting. You know what he is? He’s a leader.
With the game on the line late and a completely frazzled offense at his fingertips on the other end, Hagans won the game defensively. Two plays obviously stick out: with nearly four minutes left in regulation and a 3-point (and dwindling!) Kentucky lead, a Hagans pass squeezed through Johnny Juzang’s hands into the lap of a Red Raider who galloped down the court, flipped it to Davide Moretti, who flung an alley-oop pass to a wide open and striding Kevin McCullar, only for Ashton to soar from the free throw line and break up the pass, tipping it off the backboard and back into Johnny’s hands. He channeled his inner Brandon Echols, saving a certain bucket with a defensive leap of faith.
The other play, of course, is the final one of the evening. Moretti made the poor decision to test ASHTON HAGANS one-on-one on Tech’s final possession, actually slipped by him, and Ash stretched and poked the ball out of Davide’s grasp and the Italian fumbled it out of bounds, Kentucky ball. He completely emasculated Texas Tech on those possessions, plays that very well would have swung the ball game Tech’s way.
These are plays and games engraved on your Kentucky Basketball gravestone.
Though Richards netted 25, he’s a scorer in secondary ways—off lobs, pick-and-roll’s, fouls, etc.—and Immanuel was our only real scorer on Saturday. The only dude who could manage a bucket on his own. And thanks to John Calipari (according to Jimmy Dykes), Immanuel added an extra half-court heave to give Kentucky a first-half lead and three extra points. He didn’t turn in his best shooting performance (7/17 from the field) but it was enough to keep Kentucky afloat before Nick “Kyle Macy” Richards took over at the stripe in the final minutes.
Of course, I have to mention his yet-again spectacular defense and rebounding in addition to the shot-making. Another incredible performance from the meditative sophomore!
Perhaps his defensive liabilities just aren’t meant to be overcome, but Nate still left another heavy impact on a big stage by knocking down a triad of triples (one in OT) and wrestled away several important rebounds late. He also fouled out without committing a foul. The frustration is clear when he gets beat defensively, and at the games you can see him really get mad at himself, but it’s awesome to see Nate do exactly what he came here for: win one of the best games of the college basketball season. And he was integral with the shot-making and rebounding.
I am a prime and prehistoric Johnny J stockholder. I pleaded with you all for weeks to sail out to Johnny Juzang Island with me—I was the sole proprietor! I love everything Johnny J. He doesn’t complain, he waited for his spot to open (via unexpected transfer), he contributes and earns playing time while not doing the thing he was brought here to do. Saturday, he finally made another three-pointer, a huge one too. He also converted another mid-range jumper, and continued to rebound well.
Also, he’s a great decision-maker with the ball in his hands—and his defense improves with every second he’s on the basketball court. Love what I saw from him as his minutes continue to rise and Kentucky settles into its eight-man rotation.
EJ filled in for Nick when he had to, even played very well next to him at times even though it’s about as bad a matchup there is for the power forward edition of EJ. Buried behind likely the SEC Player of the Year frontrunner, EJ remains an extraordinary teammate and has really come on since the turn of the decade. He’s trying to do less—which Calipari preaches—focusing on rebounding, making the right passes (very underrated passer) and playing exceptional defense in the post. I trust EJ at this point. And that’s more valuable than anything in the box score.
Rough outing for Tyrese Maxey, who continues to deepen his role as the bane of my friend Ben’s existence—Ben, by the way, an impressive student of sports analytics. I still want that guy in my corner because with the game in flux, I find myself overly confident in his pull-up threes. Perhaps that’s because he single-handedly willed Kentucky to both of our other top-25 victories. Oh well, a bad shooting night (he really is piling those up) and a smattering of bad decisions lead to probably his worst game as a wildcat.
What do you want from me? He made one bad pass and was sidelined for pretty much the rest of the ball game. After Tuesday’s mini-breakout and Nate’s hot shooting, I’m not all too concerned about his dud performance Saturday.