Nick Richards had a career-high 27 points and 11 rebounds, his 10th double-double of the season, to lead Kentucky to a 80-72 win over Mississippi State on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center.
After scoring just two points in the opening half, Richards came to life over the final 20 minutes, scoring 25 second-half points and fighting for every rebound against a physical Mississippi State team that’s one of the nation’s top rebounding teams. The Bulldogs won the war on the boards 40-37, but struggled offensively against Kentucky’s pressure defense.
Immanuel Quickley continued his stellar play of late with 21 points, while EJ Montgomery added 12 points, eight rebounds and three steals.
Kentucky was deadly from the free throw line as Richards and Quickley connected on 27-of-29 from the charity stripe, including a perfect 14-of-14 for Quickley, who’s now 96 of 104 this season (92.3%) and is chasing Tyler Herro’s single-season record (93.5%).
Despite the late 9:00 p.m. ET start, the Wildcats were full of energy in the opening minutes, racing to a 7-0 start and leading 31-23 at halftime behind the play of Montgomery, who had seven points and five rebounds in the first half.
Kentucky led by as many as 14 points (50-36) on a Montgomery jump hook in the paint at the 10:50 mark. However, the Cats could not deliver the knock out punch as the Bulldogs cut the lead to six (60-54) with 4:34 remaining on a stick back and a deep three from Tyson Carter. Richards would then hit a jumper from the left elbow to extend the Kentucky lead to 62-54 and the Wildcats ultimately put the game away at the free throw line, hitting 31-of-36 (86.1%).
Kentucky did have a scary moment in the second half as Nate Sestina injured his right shoulder at the 17:27 mark, running off the court in obvious pain to the locker room. Fortunately, the graduate transfer quickly returned to action with no obvious side effects.
No 15-ranked Kentucky moves to 17-5 overall (7-2 in the SEC) and returns to action on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. ET at Tennessee. The Wildcats are now 14-0 against the Bulldogs under John Calipari, who called this a “helluva win.”
After the game, Calipari and select players talked about the late night win over the Bulldogs, courtesy of UK Athletics.
Q. Early on it seemed like by having your guys push it on a defensive rebound, it sort of made them maybe not send as many guys to the offensive glass, but also, kind of got you guys started?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s how we want to play. I just got a great text from a buddy of mine, “If Ash (Ashton Hagans) doesn’t get in foul trouble and Nate (Sestina) is right, you guys are fine, and when EJ (Montgomery) plays the way he plays, you’ve got a chance.” We’re still not quite there. We’ve got to get a couple more guys playing better, and basically, what EJ did is what my vision for him is. Notice he didn’t take many jump shots, and the one’s he did… anybody watch the game? He missed. But everything else was at the rim, at the rim, at the rim. He squared up and drove the ball. And what’s all we’ve been trying to get him to do. Play through bumps. Want to get hit. Go in once. How about that one where the guy grabbed his arm and he still made it? How about that block down the other end. EJ was ridiculous. That’s who, that’s my vision of him. That’s what I think he is. Now, why do you think he was able to do that? What have we been doing with him? Conditioning. They don’t like it. It hurts. It’s hard. It’s hard. The conditioning is starting to pay off. Now he’s got to step on the gas and even go farther.
Q. When Nick (Richards) and EJ have huge games, they are not huge physical specimens, how do they counteract going against somebody that chronic?
JOHN CALIPARI: They have got to hit first. They have got to want contact. They have got to play lower than the other guy. They can outrun people, which means they can react quicker to what’s happening, which is what Kyle (Tucker) said. They outrun the big; now you are in control of what’s about to happen. If he’s outrunning you because you’re not in really great shape and you let go of the rope; you’re tired, after three runs, you’re behind everything, and now you look like you’re getting thrown around. Both Nick and EJ are becoming conditioned big athletes. We just got to take that to another level. What I’m happy, and again, those last eight or ten fouls that they fouled purposely, but we made free throws. That’s big. We went up and knocked free throws. Nick made his. Immanuel (Quickley) made his. Ashton made his. You know, when a team is trying to foul you, you’ve got to be able to say, you’re not winning this way, we’ll make these, and that was big for us.
Q. Did Nate get his shoulder popped out and come back in?
JOHN CALIPARI: I didn’t ask him.
Q. Do you know any status going forward for him?
JOHN CALIPARI: I just said, “Can you play?” and he said, “Yes.” All right. Go in.
Q. Given the way Mississippi State plays, how much did you challenge Nick and EJ to respond physically after what happened?
JOHN CALIPARI: We did drills for two days, the same drills we did before Auburn (laughter) for two days, but you must be lower than they are. If you’re establishing straight up-and-down, or as Kyle would say, erect, you are going to get knocked around. That’s just what’s going to happen. Bend down, get low.
Q. Playing low and being in great condition, is that harder for big men?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yes.
Q. How much harder?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s kind of like lifting. So, when they are your size, lifting, they lift like that… okay. And when you’re their size and you have to list, you’ve got long muscles… Darrell Bird, little short muscles (laughter). Long muscles, and it’s the same, the longs, big guys develop later. Like EJ, it’s taken him a little time. So what? What is the issue? It’s taken him longer. I had a guy hit me today and say it’s the first time I saw EJ smile on court because he’s in shape. You know what you look like when you’re out of shape? You’re not smiling. You’re looking like you’re… he’s now out there alert and focused and ready, and when he needs a break, he says, “Give me a minute.” And I tell him, “Go back in when you want to go back in,” and we’ll wake up and go in. That’s what he is. He is a premiere player, one of the best players in the country. He’s just not done it yet, but tonight was that first step. Now build on it. Now you’re going up. You’re playing at Tennessee. Hard place to play. They just won tonight on the road. Rick’s got his guys playing better and better and they are physical. They are physical.
Q. How about EJ’s defense on (Reggie) Perry.
JOHN CALIPARI: Good.
Q. How well do you think he played that?
JOHN CALIPARI: He did good. There was a couple times that he played behind him but I thought what our guards did and how we played Perry was pretty effective, and we had spent two days, we started one way and the staff talked me out of it and I’m glad they did. Then we went another way and I was fearful because we’re small, and if you trap with both bigs, that means you’ve got three little guys around the rim if he decides to shoot it and miss it. So we did some different things. We did that, and the guys, they did a good job. You see how important Ashton is to this team, do you see his energy to start the game? This team, we can’t afford him getting in foul trouble and I keep saying, “You cannot reach. Don’t. It’s not worth it.” It’s not worth the one steal when you go five times and two of them are fouls. It’s just not worth it. So thought he did a better job today.
Q. The technical, deserved or not deserved?
JOHN CALIPARI: Oh, yeah, my thing is real simple. If an official, this is just my belief, I may be wrong in this, but if you miss a call and don’t make a call, it don’t matter what the coach does. Take it. Take it. And so, you know, in that case, I did enough to deserve it. But I’m just… we’ve had a couple games now, I’m getting kind of up to here now, and so I’ve got to stand up for these kids. I can’t let stuff happen, or it’s okay to… I’m not going to let that happen. Now, this crew tonight did a good job on this game I thought. I mean, if they called a foul down here, they called a foul down here. You can’t take the last ten fouls they fouled us on purpose. You have to eliminate those. But you know, it was a physical game. They were physical. And guess what? We were physical.
Q. You’ve always been a pretty vocal proponent of the extra pass. Saw a pretty obvious one between Tyrese (Maxey) and Ashton in the second half and ended the night with 14 assists. Happy with those efforts?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, we’re getting better. I mean, I thought Immanuel took some shots, like step backs. Just take a two. It’s not how we play, anyway. And I thought he took one where the ball bounced out and we had another clock, he took one quick. But he’s playing so well, and playing with so much energy, and you know, you let him play through. But again, Keion’s (Brooks Jr.) vital for this team. Johnny (Juzang) is vital for this team. Nate is vital for this team. Dontaie (Allen) met with me. We are going to give him a little time to condition. I may start playing Dontaie. Came in and said… you know, he went through a workout like with our team, like doing individuals, and I had never seen him go that hard, like ever. I went, “That’s who you are now? Are you ready to go?” But what I don’t want to do is use his year if I don’t intend to play him. I’m not going to play him 30 seconds or a minute and use his year up. I won’t do that to the kid. But we are down to two and the rent is due. We could use one more guy.
#1 Nate Sestina, F, Gr.
On his shoulder injury…
“That’s what I hurt my freshman year, that’s why I’m here. I took my redshirt. So, it kind of slipped a little bit, it felt a little goofy. Kind of brought back some bad memories, it scared me more than anything. I’ll just ice it, rehab it.”
On how he was able to bounce back and continue playing…
“Like I said I think it just scared me more than anything. It’s just really sore, it’s not like anything is hurt. I’m not in any pain. Then I had Cal say, ‘if you’re ready to play then play,’ so I was just trying to carry some momentum and carry things, move forward and try to get a win.”
On Nick Richards…
“I say it all the time, that dude is unreal. He is in great shape. He can grab rebounds, block shots, he does big things for us. He gets hands in passing lanes and all that stuff. It’s just all starting to pay off for him and it’s awesome to see because he deserves it. That dude is always in the gym, he is always working out. It’s big time for him, and it’s big time for us too.”
On trusting the process…
“Oh yeah, it’s great to see and it’s great to see everyone start to click. For me, it’s just seeing two quick bunnies go in felt good. And you always want to try to play better on defense than you do on offense and I always try to have that effort. And if you see two quick go in, it makes everything better. You’re feeling good and you’re energetic, but like, if you miss those you can’t let that affect how you play.”
#23 EJ Montgomery, F, So.
On your performance tonight…
“On the defensive end I tried to bring it and bring the energy and just go for every rebound.”
On your conditioning…
“It’s not been a major issue, but I just wasn’t in my tip top shape, so trying to just get ready every day and go out there and compete.”
On going up against a guy like Reggie Perry…
“It feels good. Just my competitive edge, just trying to go out there and compete and just try to get going.”
On trying to raise your game to Nick Richards level…
“It’s a lot of motivation. Nick is playing really good right now and I’m just trying to keep up with him.”
#4 Nick Richards, F, Jr.
On tonight making up for last game against Auburn…
“We’re just trying to move on from that to be honest. We don’t even want to talk about that game anymore. We learned from the mistakes in that game, we watched the film. Now we just, as the coaches say, it’s history. We’re just trying to move forward to the next game. We learned from the mistakes, we got better from it in practice. The coaches, they know how to emphasize what we need to do, and we’re just going to move on from it.”
On what changed in terms of scoring in the second half…
“I’ve got great point guards. That’s it. Finding me in the right position to take open jump shots, quick lobs, quick post-ups, finding ways to get easy hooks off. As I said, I’ve got great point guards.”
On defending against Mississippi State…
“It was a personal challenge for all of us to slow the team down. I don’t know who it was, but one guard had like twelve points in the first half. We just came into halftime, and we just focused on what we talked about during practice, and we changed up our strategy a little bit, and we just came out with a W.”