It’s no secret Nick Richards has been the Kentucky Wildcats’ best player this season and should rightfully be the leading candidate to be recognized as Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
While Richards has been the surprise success story all of Big Blue Nation has been waiting for, ‘twas Kentucky’s guard play that moved the Wildcats over the hump against the Florida Gators on Saturday.
Hot shooting from Immanuel Quickley midway through the second half sparked the Wildcats in a 65-59 win over the Gators, leaving just four games standing in-between Kentucky and the regular season SEC title.
Quickley finished the outing leading all scorers, posting 26 points and once again making clutch shots for the Wildcats. His flaming-hot, three-point shooting in the second half was exactly what Kentucky needed to pull ahead of Florida and seal the deal for their 22nd win of the season.
Star freshman Tyrese Maxey played one of his better all-around games of the season, scoring 13 points while flirting with a triple double with seven rebounds and seven assists. With Kentucky fielding more of a veteran team than usual this year, Maxey has shown a level of maturity most freshman wouldn’t normally develop.
Quickley and Maxey came into the evening expected to have their finger on the outcome of the game, but Kentucky’s third guard was actually questionable to even see action against Florida. After suffering a thigh injury on Tuesday, star defender Ashton Hagans missed out on being in Saturday evening’s starting lineup. However, it didn’t take long for him to be the team’s first substitution.
With 15:51 to go in the first half, Hagans was subbed in and played the remainder of the first half. Hagans scored all seven of his points in the first half, helping Kentucky stay afloat throughout a gritty first period.
While points are what draw the most attention, Kentucky’s backcourt deserves a world of praise for the defensive effort it put up against Florida. Starting guards Scottie Lewis, Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard were held to a combined six points on 2/14 shooting, which was a huge reason why the Gators failed to break 60 points in a game Kentucky struggled to get there as well.
Kentucky has a 16 game streak of holding opponents below their season average in effective FG%. Only 3 opponents all season have a better eFG% against UK than their season avg (Utah Valley, Utah, Ohio St).— Hoops Insight (@HoopsInsights) February 23, 2020
Then there’s the free-throw shooting, something Kentucky’s backcourt thrives with perhaps more than any team in America. Maxey and Quickley combined to shoot 9/9 from the charity stripe tonight, including 4/4 shooting in the final 15 seconds when Florida cut the lead to 61-59.
Kentucky’s guards provide a level of toughness and play with such a high level of chemistry that they cause terror for opposing backcourts at both ends of the floor. Even when Kentucky’s big men have off-nights, having such a special trio of guards to drive the lane and consistently hit outside shots is a difference-maker.
With Kentucky being able to consistently go four-to-five deep in the front court and receive this level of guard play, it’s safe to say head coach John Calipari and his team have what it takes to play their way into the month of April.