There was couple-possession stretch right before the first half’s under-eight media timeout where Kentucky unlocked what I believe is the best version of themselves. With 9:30 to go, Quickley wrapped past Maxey, assumed the basketball and flipped it to Nick for a free-throw-line swish.
Missouri came down the court and Xavier Pinson had his floater ended in midair by, of course, Nicholas. Richards collected his own blocked shot, shoveled it to Montgomery who tossed to Hagans who danced around two defenders with his pivot foot and slid the ball to a steamrolling Richards for an and-one double-pump left-hand inverse finger roll, a move Shai Gilgeous-Alexander must’ve taught him. Following the and-one, Kentucky put Missouri in a jail cell defensively, and with ample help from Rupp Arena.
The crowd’s howls shook the building while Missouri fumbled the basketball between each other for 28 seconds before Xavier Pinson shoved a pitiful pass right into Ashton hands. Hagans darted down court, drew a few Tigers to the right wing and whipped the ball to Quickley for Wildcat salvation—a made three-pointer!
Rupp Arena was absolutely wired during those two minutes. And Missouri wasn’t scoring during that stretch. That’s not a statement of hindsight fact. 20,000 rumbled and all five Cats had their wingspans maximized, electricity crackling at their fingertips, striking like Rey in The Rise of Skywalker when Mizzou entered the paint. Reminding chills scaled my spine.
Yes, this is Kentucky basketball. LeBron James couldn’t have scored against Kentucky during those two minutes (MJ still could’ve).
On to the individual takeaways.
HE DOESN’T HAVE A TORN ACHILLES! With 90 ticks left, Ashton limped up the court following a defensive possessions, memory of his early-season leg issues bubbled back into relevance and I’d assumed he just aggravated it. Still not good. But whispers of a non-contact (an always-horrifying characteristic for injuries) achilles malfunction drifted through media row on pure prognostication. Calipari was very concerned in his immediate postgame comments but solved BBN’s worries in his official presser by claiming Hagans’ suffered merely a low ankle sprain and should be good to go in 18 hours or so. Aside from that scary fiasco, Mizzou’s guards played exceptional on-ball defense, forcing Ashton into his favorite role on offense: passer. Finished with 7 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. Pretty solid line for a guy who missed all three of his field goals.
Maxey wasn’t phenomenal Saturday, recording 8 points on 3-10 shooting (0-5 from 3). Apparently that’s enough to win you “UK Sports Network’s Player of the Game” as I was pretty surprised to hear his squeaky voice on the postgame rather than Nick or Immanuel. He did play his usual reliable, fidgety defense and didn’t hesitate in hunting for his shot even after getting off to a rough start. If this is his floor—and Kentucky is capable of beating SEC foes by double digits at it—he’ll be fine. Not every game can be the Louisville game. Thank God, though, or I’d be in a coffin by 25.
This isn’t the Immanuel Quickley I envisioned when he committed to Kentucky, but it is a version I’ll happily accept. Figured he’d be more of a Hagans creator-from-the-point type. Instead, he’s a roving three-point assassin with one of the quickest draws this side of the Mississippi. Vs. Missouri, he connected on 4 of his 8 triples and drained each of his 9 meditative free throws. On a phantom “great shooting team,” Quickley’s steady stroke is a medicine we should force-feed our offense.
Big Nate is strangely hesitant to launch the three. Like, Dude, you hit FIVE against top-five Ohio State—take as many as you damn well please! Four or five times, Ashton or Ty would rocket off one of his screens, drawing both defenders and leaving Nate open, not WIDE open, but open enough. And they’d pass to him and he’d just not take the shot. Really, he’s kinda only taken those WIDE open threes this year. Maybe he’s way less comfortable with even a little less space. Either way, I’d like him to take his open threes, we really could use them.
Only one way to convey the appropriate level of excitement after that Nick Richards performance: a Dicky V. impersonation, baby.
WOW, WOWWWW! HOW ‘BOUT MR. RICHARDS! SCORING THE THE FIRST NINE POINTS FOR JOHN CALIPARI’S CLUB! LOOKING LIKE HIS FORMER TEAMMATE SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER ON THE LEFT-HAND FINISH! OHH, AND LOOK AT THAT! EURO-STEP WITH THE SOFT TOUCH. THE BIG FELLA HAS SHOWED UP TODAY FOR THE BBN! THAT’S WHAT I CALL A PTP’ER BABY! A PRIME TIME PLAYER!
We fed the Big Jamaican Joyride like he was prime Wilt. But he was even better than Wilt. He was Bill Russell. Demolishing opposing shot attempts, vacuuming the glass SERVPRO-style, euro-steps and a thousand fouls drawn, Nick dominated the paint from start to finish, and against perhaps the most physical team in the league. Nick is at the top of his own El Capitan, where, like Alex Honnold in Free Solo, he can finally relax and smile without the weight of the world pinning his shoulders. And his climb was even more difficult than Honnold’s.
Brooks does nothing spectacular and nothing very poorly (his passing could be better). Cal is basically throwing out a high-leaping red apple as a starting forward; a freshman that holds up better than average defensively (not without a lapse or two, though), shot the mid-range well in November, and lacks any identity whatsoever. But Brooks plays hard and doesn’t make ten million mistakes, generally speaking, which I assume is why he gets the nod over even-higher-leaping yellow apple Kahlil Whitney in the frontcourt pecking order.
Nick Richards and, oh, say, 117 years of Kentucky Basketball have taught us: big men need time to develop. Bad forward play left a foul and unusual taste in our mouths in ‘16, ‘17 and ‘18, save for Bam. Turns out that not every big swallows rebounds like Julius Randle or is arguably the best player on LeBron James’ team. Great low-post guys develop over a thousand nights, not just one. Nick is finally enjoying an extended zenith on the court...in his third season. It would be crazy to assume Montgomery will find the same success as Richards in a Kentucky uniform, but equally crazy to rule out the possibility entirely. So the point is we should be patient with gargantuan teenagers playing a competitive sport. EJ hasn’t performed well statistically as of late and the eye-test burns your corneas with a few atrociously boneheaded decisions every time out. Yet I still think EJ has improved this year quite a bit. He’s consistent with his rebounding and defensive effort, which is where Nick began his own rise. Stop expecting scoring from EJ, like at all, and he does alright.
Just unleash all the Cal-isms: “he needs to FIGHT!,” “he’s a shooter, just isn’t a maker,” “DIVE FOR LOOSE BALLS!” whatever other ones he’s conjured up over the years. Kahlil has to do everything that doesn’t involve the basketball before he’ll be ready and capable of putting it through the hoop. Assistant coaches continue to cheer that “he’s close.” I guess he might be? Let’s just see something, anything. No telling when that’ll be.