By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Kentucky was in a zone. Figuratively and literally. And that was the turning point of Kentucky’s heart-pounding 73-66 road victory in sold-out Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
With about 8 minutes to go in the game, after Kentucky had led much of the way, EJ Montgomery was called for a questionable illegal screen that gave him his fourth foul. Coach John Calipari immediately came out of the coach’s box to argue the call with SEC referee Anthony Jordan.
Even though the foul count all game had been lopsidedly in favor of the home standing Hogs, Jordan had already decided that he wanted to hear nothing from Calipari. Unfortunately for Calipari, he had decided he wanted to give Jordan an earful. Calipari proceeded to do that, which precipitated a technical foul on Kentucky’s coach. Jordan then tried to walk away and Calipari continued to try to pursue Jordan across the court. While being held back by another member of the SEC refereeing crew, Calipari continued to press his point and Anthony Jordan immediately called the second technical foul and pointed Calipari towards the exit.
At this point the game was tied at 44-all. Arkansas then hit three of their four technical foul shots to make the score 47-44 and Kentucky, now coached by Kenny Payne along with Tony Barbee and Joel Justus, proceeded to go on a 17-2 run powered by what Nick Richards referred to as a “man-zone”. Basically they played a “box and 1” zone with one man playing as a chaser on Arkansas’s best shooter
That move by the coaching staff, in my opinion, is what won the game for the Cats. It was totally unexpected by Arkansas coach, Eric Mussellman, and it helped to slow down the momentum of the Razorbacks while it took the raucous, sell-out crowd out of the game. The smaller Arkansas players had to try to shoot over much taller Kentucky defenders and if they drove to the basket Nick Richards was usually waiting for them in the paint. Neither of those scenarios proved very successful for the Hogs.
Meanwhile Kentucky was destroying Arkansas on the offensive end of the floor. They seemed to score at will, first with Immanuel Quickley hitting a 3-pointer and then Keion Brooks, Jr. hitting a basket before Nick Richards finished the run with a dunk off an alley-oop pass from Tyrese Maxey to put the Cats up by 12 with about two minutes to go in the game.
From there it was simply a matter of UK hitting their free throws down the stretch — which they did to the tune of 83 percent — and overcoming some very confusing calls by the Anthony Jordan-led officiating crew before the Wildcats could head home with another road victory in the SEC.
One big takeaway from this game was the way Kentucky overcame adversity — some that they created themselves and some that was thrust upon them by the three-man SEC officiating crew — to pull off a win in a very hostile environment against a team that hadn’t lost at home this season.
In Kentucky’s last road game against South Carolina they gave up a big lead in the second half and couldn’t overcome the adversity to win the game. In this game, against a much more talented opponent, they were able to weather the storm and finish the game.
The second big takeaway from this game was that it was a true team effort. UK was led in scoring by some of the usual players — Nick Richards, Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey — but also received some much needed scoring support from Keion Brooks, Jr who had 10 points and Johnny Juzang who tossed in 5 points. That helped to make up for a game in which Nate Sestina and EJ Montgomery combined for 4 points and 5 rebounds in 38 minutes of play.
The team play also carried over into the rebounding category — one that drew Calipari’s ire after the South Carolina loss — where three of the top five rebounders were guards led by Immanuel Quickley’s total of 10.
All-in-all it was a strange day of basketball. Kentucky built a double-digit lead on the road in a sold-out arena, foul calls were about 5 to 1 against the Cats in each half, their head coach was ejected in the second half after a big comeback by the Razorbacks and then the assistant coaches for Kentucky came up with an exotic zone defense that their team had only practiced once to win the game.
Throw in some clutch free throw shooting by Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley in the second half and you have all the elements for a quirky but very much needed critical road victory by Kentucky in the SEC.
And that’s exactly what they got. A valuable conference road victory in a year when it seems like there is a revolving door leading to the spots held by the Top 10 in college basketball.