The matchup between the two best bigs in the SEC took up all of the pregame hype as it was the only time during the regular season that we were going to see Reggie Perry and Nick Richards go at it in the paint. The likely first round picks are among the favorites in the SEC player of the year race and in Rupp Arena it was Kentucky's guys who shined brightest. Despite a career-high scoring night and another double-double it was another big that stole the show.
EJ Montgomery put together the best game of his collegiate career in Kentucky's eight-point win over Mississippi State to get to 7-2 in SEC play and stay in the hunt for the regular season conference title race. The Wildcats picked up a nice bounce back victory and they did it by getting one of their most efficient offensive nights of the season.
Kentucky scored 80 points in 71 possessions posting 1.13 points per trip. This was their second highest efficiency output in SEC play and they did it with twos and free throws. The Wildcats rank just eighth in the league in two-point field goal percentage, but they hit 23 of their 44 attempts tonight for a 52.3 percent shooting clip. That's very good. From the line, UK hit 31 of their 36 attempts and they currently rank sixth nationally in free throw shooting percentage and free throw rate. The Wildcats are getting to the line a bunch and they are making opponents pay when they visit.
UK had just 10 turnovers, but they collected 14 on 24 baskets despite being ice cold from the three-point line. After posting some very good shooting numbers in SEC play, UK went just 1 of 10 from beyond the arc and now rank 238th in three-point shooting percentage. The Wildcats had to live with paint production and the two traditional bigs delivered against a very talented Mississippi State front court.
EJ Montgomery had his best day as a Wildcat with 12 points and 8 rebounds in a career-high 32 minutes. The sophomore big was very active on the boards and gave UK some much needed length on the interior. He played offense with a lot of confidence highlighted by a swooping and-1 bucket with just under 12 minutes left to give UK an 11-point lead. It was a monster bump to the offense and could be the key to this team reaching their ceiling.
Montgomery was the story for the first 25 minutes, but Nick Richards stole the show in the last 15. After a very slow start, the junior big man came alive as he finished with a career-high 27 points and 11 rebounds on 7 of 10 shooting from the floor. The near seven-footer splashed mid-range jumpers, went 13 of 15 at the foul line and provided a ton of hustle plays to the team down the stretch. It was his 10th double-double of the season and his SEC player of the year candidacy remains very strong.
Immanuel Quickley led the way on the perimeter with 21 points on just three mades shots. The sophomore was 3 of 11 from the field and 1 of 6 from three, but he was a perfect 14 of 14 from the charity stripe and his makes at the end allowed UK to close the game. It was Quickley's third 20-plus point performance in the last four games and he's developing into Kentucky's second most reliable offensive option behind Richards.
Ashton Hagans scored just six points on seven shots, but he dished out six assists and took care of the basketball. After a hot start early, Tyrese Maxey finished with eight points on nine shots, but his five assists were his highest mark since the win over Georgia in Athens last month. Both Keion Brooks Jr. and Johnny Juzang played just five minutes off the bench while Nate Sestina gave UK six points in 15 minutes and thankfully returned to the game after some type of shoulder injury.
Kentucky allowed 72 points in 71 possessions with Mississippi State putting up 1.01 points per trip. Against a team that currently ranks 14th nationally in offensive efficiency, you will take that result. The Bulldogs shot just 38.5 percent from two and 31.2 percent from three. They were able to cash in with 17 points at the free throw line, but for the most part UK did a very good job against a good offensive team.
Reggie Perry is the biggest threat for Mississippi State on the offensive end and they run a ton of stuff through the 6-foot-10 big. Kentucky had to find a way to challenge him with their length and they were able to do that. The sophomore finished with 14 points on 4 0f 16 shooting and 4 turnovers. He never really looked comfortable and without a big night from him it was going to be hard for the Bulldogs to pull off the upset.
After being destroyed by Auburn on the glass, Mississippi State provided another big challenge as they rank second nationally in offensive rebound percentage. After a strong start, the Bulldogs got rolling in the second half collecting 17 offensive rebounds and scoring 22 second chance points. Kentucky's first shot defense is getting the job done, but they are struggling to end possessions. The Bulldogs got 39 of their 72 points thanks to offensive rebounds and free throws as this remains an area UK must fix.
Kentucky still currently ranks dead last in the SEC in defensive turnover percentage and they were only able to create 10 takeaways in the victory. However, they were able to produce seven steals and those live ball turnovers resulted in some easy buckets. Quite frankly, Kentucky is going to need more of that, especially when facing teams that successfully crash the offensive glass.
Going into the game we all knew that Kentucky was going to have difficulty winning the rebounding battle and that Mississippi State was going to get their fair share of second chance opportunities. Due to the fact that UK isn't really forcing turnovers, they needed to find some way to get out and find easy baskets so they were not leaning on half court execution to win the game.
To do that, we saw a concerted effort by Kentucky to push the ball on nearly all of the defensive rebounds they gobbled up and to turn nearly every live ball turnover into a transition opportunity. The result was Kentucky collecting 25 fast break points to Mississippi State's 8. The Bulldogs prefer to play at a slow tempo and Kentucky was able to use that to their advantage by getting the ball to their three guards and letting them attack on the dribble. That plus-17 margin allowed UK to makeup ground in the second chance points deficit.
It was good to see UK force their style of play on an opponent and this strategy was a big reason why UK left Rupp Arena victorious.
After losing to Auburn on the road, facing Mississippi State immediately in your next game is about as tough of a matchup you could ask for. The Bulldogs are elite in crashing the offensive glass and were riding a five-game SEC winning streak with three victories occurring by double-digits. State had the personnel to expose some of UK's weaknesses and everyone knew going into the game.
Despite this obvious advantage, Kentucky was able to counter with its speed to create some easy scoring opportunities and some big minutes from EJ Montgomery allowed the home team to build an early lead. Nick Richards took over in crunch time, but getting that type of production from the four spot was a major step forward for this basketball team. Now the next step is to see if Montgomery can become a consistent contributor.
While Kentucky's offense did some really good things, it's also important to remember that the Wildcats posted this very strong performance against a team that currently ranks 102nd in defensive efficiency. However, UK was unable to hit threes that have been falling in recent weeks and got to the free throw line at a tremendous rate. Meanwhile, the defense was really superb despite the second chance opportunities given up.
There's no denying that this win was very big and there is still plenty to build on before the postseason arrives in a little over a month. John Calipari is now 14-0 against Mississippi State since taking over the Kentucky basketball program.
On to Tennessee.