When Kentucky coach John Calipari was asked about EJ Montgomery’s eight-point, 10-rebound performance in the Wildcats’ 69-60 victory over Texas A&M for their seven straight win and 15th in the last 17 games, Calipari didn’t mince words.
“It was unbelievable. It’s the best I’ve seen him play,” Calipari said during his post-game press conference after Montgomery played 38 minutes with conference player of the year candidate Nick Richards in foul trouble virtually the entire evening.
Montgomery has had more productive games in terms of statistics, but when you factor in the spot he was elevated into with Richards being such a focal point of Texas A&M’s defense, plus Kentucky trying to avoid a trap road game with a two-game lead in the SEC, Montgomery’s performance was crucial in Kentucky officially clinching a top-4 seed in the SEC Tournament.
Immanuel Quickley made 11 of Kentucky’s 24 total field goals and the big shots down the stretch when the game felt tighter in his 30-point outing, but Montgomery played a part.
This was the best possession all night long. Hagans beats the 1-2-2 with a risky split at the timeline and slows it down. Calipari calls for Maxey to sink to the corner and the high Richards screen.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
Then, Kentucky goes to work. Excellent ball movement and then EJ ➡️ IQ ➡️ . pic.twitter.com/yxiLRCGwch
Montgomery’s offensive rebound count: 5, Texas A&M as a team: 6
Not only did Montgomery almost have as many offensive rebounds (5) as Texas A&M’s entire team (6), Kentucky was able to convert those second chances into points.
Immanuel Quickley is the SEC Player of the Year, but if Tuesday’s version of EJ Montgomery is the one Kentucky’s getting in March, look out.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
Hagans picks off a lazy pass, misses the transition layup, but Montgomery keeps the play alive and finds IQ for 3. pic.twitter.com/KpHVZkmZgt
Kentucky’s had a fair share of issues, despite the hot streak they’ve been on since the turn of the new year, and one of those issues is allowing teams to hang around by not getting to ‘50/50 balls’ and not bringing the same energy that lesser opponents have. Montgomery grabbed five offensive rebounds against the Aggies, including this one early in the game.
Kentucky beats A&M’s 1-2-2 defense and resets to run their ‘Circle’ action for Tyrese Maxey. He tries the baseline floater off the action, misses, but nobody picked up Montgomery and he slammed home an easy putback. pic.twitter.com/ILu1tlIjH5— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
This putback dunk for Montgomery off Tyrese Maxey’s missed floater was about as easy as the lob he caught from Maxey later in the game. Montgomery just soars into the air after nobody picked him up off the miss for the easy jam.
One thing that stood out with Montgomery off those rebounds was that he was always looking for an open man and making quick decisions with the basketball. He makes one here and Quickley cashes home one of his eight triples on the night.
Hagans drives and kicks to the right corner for Quickley. He misses the 3, but Montgomery (5 OREB) gathers the miss off a tip and gets Kentucky another shot at it. Hagans drives baseline, passes up a layup, finds Quickley, who makes a good extra pass to Maxey for 3. pic.twitter.com/t9EJuJ4XXv— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
This was one of Kentucky’s best possessions offensively and Montgomery was right in the thick of it. He grabs the miss off Ashton Hagans’ baseline floater attempt and the guards too advantage of the extra chance with the ball movement. Hagans drives again, kicks to Quickley and he finds Maxey completely open with an extra dish for 3.
Montgomery does the right thing by going baseline. He gets contested well at the rim, but gathers his miss and kicks out to Juzang, who made a great no-look extra feed to the right corner for another IQ 3. pic.twitter.com/2Vgi2a4Vtw— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
Another one of Montgomery’s offensive rebounds led to another Kentucky triple here. Montgomery was stoned at the rim, but didn’t give up on the play to grab the board and escapes the chaos with a good kickout to Johnny Juzang. Quickley drains another 3 off a pretty no-look extra pass from Juzang for three of Kentucky’s 13 second-chance points.
This could’ve been scary for Montgomery after a good first half, but it showed just how active he was last night. He was all over the place (in a good way) with his energy and hustle. Good to know both guys came out just fine. pic.twitter.com/LVV3Xo2alV— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
This could’ve been a dire situation for Kentucky if Montgomery was seriously injured here, but in an odd way, was a perfect example to how important he was against the Aggies. These types of collisions unfortunately happen sometimes with loose balls, but this is the kind of effort that the coaches have been saying Montgomery can give.
Quite a bit with this one:— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
-What a big rebound in that spot from Montgomery
-How did Quickley make that second shot?
-Richards makes the same pass Montgomery did on Quickley’s eighth 3, just from the other side of the floor on the first attempt pic.twitter.com/6BNU4ZUorP
A&M trimmed a once-14-point lead down to six earlier in the second half and tried to make a late push to make Kentucky sweat it out. Quickley’s bank shot and left wing 3 to seal it were the big things remembered down the stretch, but before the first big shot, Montgomery grabbed Quickley’s right wing miss to help the Cats burn some more time late.
It wasn’t just Montgomery’s rebounding that showed his impact
Whether it was picking off lazy passes or making life difficult for A&M around the basket, Montgomery was able to make plays on the other end of the floor, too.
Quickley comes up with the steal, but Montgomery was tough around the basket last night. A&M shot it well from 3, but when they looked to score around the rim against Richards/Montgomery, it didn’t go well. pic.twitter.com/tPWTCVsUcS— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
Despite the foul trouble, Richards still played 27 minutes and as efficient as A&M was shooting the 3 (10-of-22 on the night), they had a tough time around the rim when both bigs were on the floor together.
According to the StatBroadcast shot chart, the Aggies missed 10 shots deep in the paint and of their six made layups/dunks, three of them came in the final 1:06 of the game with Kentucky seemingly in firm control of the game.
Richards and Montgomery help each other out on this possession. Richards provides a double as A&M is forced to reset and then Montgomery comes off the weak side for the swat at the rim. pic.twitter.com/WmSeakmeAw— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
When Richards and Montgomery aren’t getting called for touch fouls defensively, you’re not scoring on them both at the rim. It’s just not happening. pic.twitter.com/bwDjwAYuZg— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
As one of the ‘EJ Montgomery Fan Club’ members, it probably has felt repetitive for some to hear over and over again that Montgomery is *thisclose* to breaking through that metaphorical glass ceiling holding him back from his real potential, but this is the first time in his career that it’s starting to feel like it can actually happen.
Now, if he has three points, two rebounds and four fouls in 17 minutes of action in the Auburn rematch on Saturday, then we’re probably right back to where we were with this discussion.
But, his coaches are still to really believe in Montgomery and when you watch his performance on Tuesday, it feels like Montgomery is starting to believe in his potential.