“EJ, you’re close,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said on EJ Montgomery after his team’s 69-60 victory over Texas A&M on the road back on Feb. 25 where Montgomery scored eight points, grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds, dished out a trio of assists with two steals and a block.
“He is so close to being what he’s capable [of], he’s close, but he’s close because he’s conditioning, he’s pushing.”
It’s no secret that Calipari pushes to get the best out of his players, especially his big men and their abilities to produce offensively while rebounding and defending on the other end.
It’s been two seasons now, and although he’s not where he could potentially be, EJ Montgomery made some nice strides this season into becoming what Calipari and his coaching staff believe the Fort Pierce, Florida native can become.
Once I get the full game footage, I’m going to write about EJ Montgomery from tonight. This possession was so good in full and this pass was a perfect cap to it before the IQ dagger. pic.twitter.com/N7kpx1y69S— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 26, 2020
Consistency and doing the little things is the name of the game if you want to stay in Calipari’s rotation and at times, Montgomery did those things with four double-digit scoring games and 12 games with at least six rebounds.
However, games where Montgomery found himself in early foul trouble due to some apparent fitness issues, poor positioning and late contests on shots found him in the doghouse throughout the season. Still, Montgomery had some key moments throughout the SEC title-winning campaign, including arguably the biggest one of the season in the finale.
Let’s dive into some of Montgomery’s best moments, starting with his career-high point output in early December.
Montgomery finishes one rebound shy of a 25/10 game
Scoring 25 points against say, Michigan State or Louisville, is a lot different than doing it against an undersized, out-manned Fairleigh Dickinson team, but back on Dec. 7, it appeared Montgomery’s ‘breakout’ may have arrived.
Montgomery scored 25 points on 12-of-16 shooting with nine rebounds in Kentucky’s 82-53 demolition of the Knights for their fifth straight win at the time, following a 16-point, eight-rebound performance against UAB a week prior.
The Cats dominated from the opening tip onward, but Montgomery looked like the best player on the floor at times. It wasn’t just finishing well inside the restricted area for Montgomery either. He showed a glimpse of his post game and his mid-range jumper (that I will continue to believe in regardless of what the poor shooting percentages say).
Unfortunately for him and the Cats, that type of production took seven games to match, including a zero-point performance in 20 minutes against Georgia Tech. It took from Dec. 7 to Jan. 11 to match the 25 points he scored against FD, but on this night, he looked nothing shy of fantastic.
OK, maybe this is the breakout (vs. Mississippi State)
Outside of his performance against Texas A&M late in the year, the best overall performance from Montgomery in the latter part of the season came against Associated Press co-SEC Player of the Year Reggie Perry and Mississippi State back on Feb. 4 in an 80-72 win for the Cats against the Bulldogs at home.
Montgomery and Nick Richards made Perry’s night a rough one in front of a good chuck of NBA scouts in attendance to the tune of 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting, eight rebounds and five fouls.
While battling through his own foul trouble to play 32 minutes (the only game he played more minutes in: Texas A&M on Feb. 25 where he played 38 minutes), Montgomery scored 12 points, grabbed eight rebounds with three steals, including a fun and-one that sent the bench into a bigger frenzy than the entire Rupp Arena crowd that night.
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
Montgomery saves the day against Ole Miss
Let’s be honest with ourselves here: Kentucky probably should’ve lost this game.
In a contest where Kentucky shot an abysmal 2-for-22 (?!) from 3-point range in a 67-62 escape against Ole Miss at home on Feb. 15, EJ Montgomery, who didn’t take a shot and pulled in eight rebounds, made the play of the game for the Cats inside of the final two minutes to give them the lead for good.
After Tyrese Maxey missed yet another 3 for Kentucky, Montgomery ripped the ball away on the rebound and somehow, found Maxey again on the perimeter. Maxey drove and finished strongly through contact off the window to give the Cats the lead.
Sometimes, you just have to take an ugly win because wins are wins and Kentucky doesn’t win this one without Montgomery’s grit and determination to make a play late.
The finish from Maxey was tough stuff after a horrendous brick, but what a goddamn play from EJ Montgomery.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 16, 2020
These are the types of plays that get you to Atlanta. pic.twitter.com/iSUJ1RSz2B
Montgomery’s tip is good! Kentucky leads!
I mean, was there any other option for Montgomery’s final moment on his list?
After trailing by as many as 18 points with just inside of 12 minutes to play at Florida in what turned out to be their final game of the season, the Cats made one of the most exciting comebacks in program history without Ashton Hagans and without SEC Player of the Year (in the coaches vote) Immanuel Quickley for the final nineish minutes of the ballgame.
Kentucky roared all the way back and trailed by one with the ball inside of the final 30 seconds when chaos ensued, leading to a Montgomery putback of a Keion Brooks Jr. (who stepped up massively in this game) to give the Cats a 71-70 advantage.
The funny thing about this play: watch the replays closely. Brooks actually tips the ball right to Montgomery in a way. It was just as wild as it looked live.
It was initially ruled basket interference by the officials, but thanks to the controversy of Kentucky’s loss at the buzzer on a tip at the rim against LSU a year prior, the play was under review thanks to a new review rule put in place for a situation like this, and Kentucky eventually survived a prayer from Andrew Nembhard at the buzzer.
It’s a shame Montgomery and the Cats didn’t get a chance to give the Big Blue Nation more moments in March to cherish, but this one will be remembered for quite a while when you factor in the circumstances Kentucky faced.