By LARRY VAUGHT
Not only can Immanuel Quickley make plays on the court, but he has a way with words.
“We had no chance of winning without Nick,” Quickley said after UK’s 76-74 overtime win at Texas Tech Saturday that snapped Tech’s 54-game non-conference home winning streak.
It wasn’t always pretty. Texas Tech had 25 points off 13 UK turnovers and Kentucky had just one field goal in the final 6 minutes, 15 seconds of play and then had another three-minute drought without a field goal in overtime.
But Superman — also known as Nick Richards — was always there when UK needed him the most. He finished with 25 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field and 11-for-14 at the foul line along with 14 rebounds and four blocks. He’s not only a consistent double-double machine now, but he played 39 minutes without a turnover and only three fouls even though the Red Raiders tried to at him a lot.
“The last two years Nick maybe would not even want to be in the game (at crunch time). Now he wants the ball,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said.
Even if you don’t always agree with Dykes, he’s right about. Freshman and sophomore Nick Richards did not have the confidence to do what he did Saturday. Now he does.
“I kissed Nick on the forehead,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the game. “I said, ‘There are about three of you in this room who need to do this, but I’ll do it for you.’ Nick is just taking it to another level.”
He’s right. Kentucky didn’t get banner games from a lot of players but the Cats did do one thing — they fought despite mistakes and some questionable officiating. They also knew, especially Ashton Hagans, to get the ball to Richards at key times even if they did forget that a bit after building a 10-point lead they almost blew again like they did at South Carolina two weeks ago.
Richards is now UK’s leading scorer (14.3 points per game), rebounds (8.1 per game), blocks (48), field goals made (104) and field goal percentage (67.5). He’s second in free throw attempts (87) and is hitting 73.6 at the line. He’s also making just one turnover per 17 minutes played.
Kentucky Radio Network analyst Mike Pratt, a former UK All-American, called Richards a beast after the game. Senior Nate Sestina agreed during his postgame interview.
“Nick every day he wants to get better. He is on a treadmill. It’s not a fluke (he’s better). He’s doing it. In the weight room, getting ups shots, playing one on one with guards so he can do that,” Sestina said. “It is good that he has taken that step for himself and built his confidence He is the one doing it. Give credit to the coaches but he busts his butt and has one of the best work ethics and drives on our team. He’s done this.”
Richards is never going to brag on himself. He wouldn’t after this game — when he easily could have.
What was he thinking when he took the last seven free throws to help UK win?
“We need it,” he said.
Just like Kentucky needs Richards who might be playing as well or better than any center in the country now.