Standing ovations happen from time to time inside Rupp Arena when the Big Blue Nation recognizes an effort-filled sequence or a big-time play being made from one of their own.
Tuesday brought a couple ‘standing o’s’ for a particular player during EJ Montgomery’s 12-point, eight-rebound, three-steal outing in Kentucky’s 80-72 victory over a toasty Mississippi State team that had won five of their last seven games. He’s been on the cusp of breaking through that ceiling where his confidence and execution on the floor are matching the high expectations for him since the start of last season.
“EJ was ridiculous. That’s my vision of him,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari after his team’s bounce-back victory against the Bulldogs.
“He’s one of the premier players in the nation. He just hasn’t shown it yet.”
With the Wildcats needing all hands on deck against the SEC’s best offensive rebounding team and one of the favorites for the SEC Player of the Year award in Reggie Perry, Montgomery stepped to the forefront of the action and provided what could be argued as his best performance in a Kentucky uniform.
Offensively, Montgomery was aggressive, which is what Kentucky has needed out of their four-men
Montgomery made plays on both ends of the floor, but it was his offensive production that seems to really get him going. He took (but missed) the first two shots for Kentucky on the night, looking to find that jumper early, but he didn’t let that rock his confidence.
Kentucky used a “Spain” pick-and-roll look that haunted Vanderbilt during the Cats’ big comeback last week and it worked well against the Bulldogs, too.
Ashton Hagans showed tremendous patience off the Nate Sestina screen and found the rolling big man for the easy deuce, one of his three key buckets in the first half before injuring his previously-repaired right shoulder. (He did mention that he was fine after the win.)
I believe Jimmy Dykes said Calipari calls this their “Stack” look. Whether you call it a “Stack” or a Spain PnR, they used it throughout the night to success and were able to get production when it was picked up.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
They nailed it here on the find to Sestina. pic.twitter.com/qgTA7olmYt
Here’s the very next possession for Kentucky where Montgomery gets involved. When the same look doesn’t work, Kentucky looks to the post to find one of their bigs on the low block. This feed from Montgomery off the wing into Sestina was perfection.
On the next possession, they run it again, but when MSU picks it up, Kentucky goes to ol’ reliable with a post feed, which Sestina converts without much trouble because of a tough, but great pass from Montgomery. pic.twitter.com/kUrhNGrP5v— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
Jimmy Dykes said what some of us were probably thinking and that’s EJ Montgomery could get to that left hand in the paint whenever he wanted on Tuesday night. MSU’s bigs didn’t put up too much resistance when he attacked the lane and it showed a couple times.
Montgomery had Reggie Perry in his pocket for much of the night and it showed here. He could get to that left hand whenever he wanted to last night. pic.twitter.com/OdVirUjo22— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
The left hand. Too easy. pic.twitter.com/eRsUzqcEtS— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
There’s a play coming that sums up the entirety of the night for Kentucky and Mississippi State, but this one summed up Montgomery’s night perfectly. Not only did he go back to that left hand for the bucket plus the foul, the reaction he got from his teammates displayed how important his performance was on Tuesday.
EJ Montgomery had arguably the best game of his Kentucky career last night and this was probably my favorite play because of the bench’s reaction. pic.twitter.com/ztuF66vxZJ— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
Defensively, Montgomery was a terror
Perry shot 4-of-16 from the field and it didn’t feel like he actually made those four shots until the game felt tighter than it actually was inside of the final four minutes to play.
Calipari noted in his post-game presser that he wanted to trap Perry more defensively, but with an added big covering him, that would’ve left Kentucky’s guards vulnerable to offensive rebounds for the Bulldogs leading to extra possessions.
Perry shot 4/16 from the field and struggling basically all night because of Montgomery’s length and physicality. (And the fact that the officials really let them play for an entire half.) pic.twitter.com/x8yLCuZaeH— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
Montgomery held his own and stayed out of foul trouble. He displayed the physicality and toughness that the coaching staff has been begging to see out of him since his arrival in Lexington.
This basically sums up the night for both Perry and Montgomery: pic.twitter.com/bv1kQ8ZMwT— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
On the few occasions they did trap Perry when he got the ball down low, there wasn’t much room to operate. You could sense his frustration all night by the efforts of Montgomery and the other bigs.
The doubles and the physicality really caught up to Perry throughout the night. He never looked comfortable at all. Credit to Montgomery for being a big reason why. pic.twitter.com/MMkhxOJmZn— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
The play of the night for both teams
Dykes talked about being able to rebound in March to make a deep run, but these types of effort plays here are also what can get you down to “Catlanta” and the Final Four.
Kentucky’s got plenty of work to do still with nine games, but if their big men are making this kind of effort in a game they had to have, the Big Blue Nation will sleep easier at night because they’re starting to turn it on at the right time of the year.
Neither the lobs or the putback from Montgomery off the first lob fell, but watch Montgomery not give up on the play. He gets the clean poke of the ball and immediately looks to Richards, who gets fouled and earns a trip to the line. That’s winning basketball.
This was the play that truly summed up the night for both teams. Sure, it’s ugly basketball, but the hustle and effort from Montgomery and Richards was fantastic. They outworked MSU up front all night. pic.twitter.com/ESh1eVeHsv— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 5, 2020
Nick Richards scoring 25 second-half points can’t be understated. He’s the SEC Player of the Year award winner if the season ended right now, which, who was thinking that could be a reality back in September?
The Cats shooting 31-of-36 (!) from the line, including 16-for-16 (!!) in the final 2:20 of the game was massive in keeping the Bulldogs from stealing one. Immanuel Quickley made all 14 of his attempts from the charity stripe and has only missed 19 freebies in 58 career games for Kentucky on 170 attempts.
But, if this is the kind of effort EJ Montgomery is going to consistently give Kentucky is going into the rest of the season with some important matchups coming, Kentucky just might have turned a corner after a key loss.