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EJ Montgomery couldn’t have picked a better time to turn a corner

Nobody’s really sure where in the world the version of EJ Montgomery came from on Tuesday night, but Big Blue Nation is pretty happy that he arrived on the scene.

Montgomery Jeremy Chisenhall - Sea of Blue

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.