The questions outnumbered the answers surrounding the health statuses of Kentucky center Nick Richards (ankle) and point guard Ashton Hagans (thigh) after the Wildcats escaped Baton Rouge with a huge 79-76 victory earlier in the week over LSU to maintain their advantage in the SEC regular season title race.
Although both would play 30+ minutes in Saturday’s 65-59 win over Florida, the bigger answers Kentucky got as to how they would get past a Florida side that had won their five of their last six contests coming into the weekend came from a different Kentucky duo.
Tyrese Maxey (13 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals) and Immanuel Quickley (26 points, three steals) took control early and often to push Big Blue another game closer to their 49th SEC regular season title with four games to play.
Maxey scored or assisted on 16 of the first 24 points for Kentucky, while Quickley scored 22 of his game (and new career)-high 26 in the final 20 minutes, including a personal 9-0 in about two minutes to put the Cats ahead by six and sent Rupp Arena into a Tayshaun Prince-esque frenzy.
Maxey stepped up with his role being somewhat modified early on
Tyrese Maxey got off to a great start and Immanuel Quickley finished it off in grand style with a huge second-half performance. They were both fantastic.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Maxey got himself going as the lead ball-handler w/Hagans in limited action with his best shot off a poor closeout attempt. pic.twitter.com/J68iucj4DR
Maxey was given the prime ball-handling responsibilities out of the gate without Hagans starting and looked comfortable in the role. He’s still at his best when he’s attacking the rim and he did just that for his first points, driving past a poor closeout attempt to drop one of his patented floaters.
Maxey and Montgomery contest the rim strongly, while Quickley comes away with the ball + the best team possession Kentucky played all night offensively. Everyone touched the rock before Montgomery’s slam. Beautiful. pic.twitter.com/m8dTCKy8UV— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Kentucky jumped out to an 8-2 start before the under-16 media timeout thanks to possessions like this on both ends. Maxey does a good job contesting the drive and shot at the basket with some help from EJ Montgomery. Quickley comes away with the ball and looks to push. All five starters touched the ball on the other end with Maxey picking up one of his seven assists on a good pass to Montgomery for an easy dunk.
The play was originally designed for a Richards post shot, but got kicked back out. Hagans drives back into the lane, kicks out to Sestina and swings to Maxey. The closeout was better, but Maxey drives left and finishes through contact anyway. He’s really good at that. pic.twitter.com/vNfNJUJb9B— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
One of the things that makes Maxey a likely lottery pick is his ability to not only attack and get to the free-throw line, but his ability to finish through contact is among the elite group of prospects. He shows great balance and strength through the bump and shows off that soft touch again for two.
Maxey gets a gift with a horrid pass from Blackshear and then in the half-court on the other end, delivers what probably was his best pass all season to Sestina for the easy two when he’s doubled up top. pic.twitter.com/9rDbniWiH7— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Maxey looked like the best player of the floor early on in the game because he was able to make some plays on the defensive end, too. He snags a bad pass to the corner and then runs a quick pick-and-roll with Nate Sestina on the left wing. Maxey draws the double team and delivers a pretty diagonal find down low to Sestina for another easy deuce.
This was an awesome play from Maxey. His initial floater attempt off his drive was just a little short, but shows great touch on the follow + the foul. pic.twitter.com/8O31QoChMo— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
He made some fantastic plays all night, but this one was another one of Maxey’s best. His initial floater attempt fell short, but not only did he find a way to follow his shot, he gets the putback to fall, plus the foul. That’s a tough make.
It’s wild how Quick(ley) a game can change
I snapped this because it was where the game changed. Florida just went up seven after a foul call at the rim on Sestina and with everyone in flux, look who tried to settle it all down: pic.twitter.com/PVmOTJvgdr— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Kentucky got off to a horrendous start out of the break and found themselves down seven less than three minutes into the second half. After Sestina was called for a foul, Quickley was the only one that looked to rally the troops a bit and settle things down.
The next offensive possession for Kentucky, Quickley attacks and completes a three-point play. He was just getting started.
So of course, guess who answers the call with Kentucky down seven on the very next possession + the foul: pic.twitter.com/1lyk4wwc69— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Quickley’s response lit a fire under the Cats because Maxey got back into the action with a fantastic steal on one end and finishes through another bump at the rim to quickl(e)y trim the Florida lead back to two just like that.
Quickley attacks the rim again off the Hagans steal and of course, gets the bucket, the foul and the three-point play. pic.twitter.com/Dz95SFwpKH— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
If Quickley wasn’t awake before, he was after this three-point play just based off his reaction to the finish. Hagans gets the steal and Quickley sprints down the lane again and drains the shot off the glass through the contact to tie the game and then give Kentucky the lead back.
Florida answered Kentucky’s 8-0 run from Maxey and Quickley with four straight and went to a 2-3 look defensively. Hagans gets to the middle and finds Quickley (and his off-ball movement gets him an open look) for 3. This was the first of two times Florida lost him w/o the ball. pic.twitter.com/EJ5ArDKNTP— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Quickley hit four 3-pointers on Saturday and two of them during this hot stretch came because of his off-ball movement. Florida temporarily halted Kentucky’s spurt with four straight points to regain the lead, but as they switched to a 2-3 zone defensively, Hagans got the ball to the middle of the floor and Quickley lost his man to give Hagans an easy moving target for a pass and the open 3.
Scottie Lewis had absolutely no idea where Quickley was and it showed when Maxey drove right into trouble. Quickley goes out and back down to give Maxey an easy pass for another IQ 3. Great movement from Quickley to shake Lewis. pic.twitter.com/VDH3YMnVCN— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Here’s the second triple where Quickley completely loses his defender with his movement. Maxey dribbles into trouble near the baseline, but Scottie Lewis gets caught watching the ball and had no clue where Quickley was on the right wing until it was too late and he was drilling another 3.
More like Immanuel Prince, IMO. pic.twitter.com/LtjFUsNJoV— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
And then, of course, the heat check. Splash.
Quickley was so good attacking the lane in the second half. You can hear Calipari absolutely shouting at his team during this set, which basically was, “Go get us a bucket, IQ.” pic.twitter.com/t3Taj2aCls— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Maxey and Quickley both were tough to contain off the bounce on Saturday and once Quickley saw a couple shots go in, Florida had no answers for him. He missed five of his first six shots and then proceeded to make seven of his next 11 attempts, including this shot straight off the glass.
Sometimes, shooting a soft ball on a night where you’re hotter than the Sun is all it takes.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 23, 2020
Kentucky tried to give this game away with their lack of execution against the press again, but here’s the dagger outside of the late freebies from Maxey and IQ. pic.twitter.com/FRi0xbBiBz
Being how that game ended with Kentucky again struggling against an opponent’s press defense, it’s probably a good thing the Rupp rims had some kindness for Quickley inside of the final two minutes, huh?
A quiet part of Quickley’s big night:
Everyone is talking about Immanuel Quickley's hot hand in the second half, but how about him shutting down Locke? Locke had a combined 51 points with 14 made 3s in his last three games. Goose egg today.— Drew Franklin (@DrewFranklinKSR) February 23, 2020
Saturday showed why Kentucky should be considered among the nation’s most dangerous teams heading into March. Even without their floor general feeling like himself with a thigh bruise and their All-American candidate of a center not fully producing like he has been all season, the Cats have two of the nation’s best guards that can go for 20+ on any night.
The Kentucky Wildcats still have some things to clean up as John Calipari will say in the coming games before the second season starts, but when you have Maxey and Quickley (and a healthy Hagans), you got a shot.