By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — Nick Richards has been making a difference for Kentucky during the past three weeks and made an impact in the Wildcats’ win at Georgia earlier this week.
It was the play of Richards in the second half that helped No. 14 Kentucky overcome a 31-27 halftime deficit as the Wildcats went on to defeat the Bulldogs 78-69 in the first true road game of the season. Bulldogs coach Tom Crean said Richards is “playing at a very high level right now.”
“We know when he plays well, they play well,” Crean said.
Richards scored just seven points in Kentucky’s losses to Utah and Ohio State in Las Vegas last month. Since then, he has scored 51 in wins over Louisville, Missouri and Georgia. Richards is second on the team in scoring with an average of 13 points per game and is first in rebounding with 7.5 boards per outing. He is averaging 19 points per game in the team’s two Southeastern Conference games and leads the team with 30 blocks.
The junior forward was instrumental in Kentucky’s 78-70 overtime win over Louisville last month. Richards scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Cardinals.
“I took it up a notch, got to a different level, because I knew it was a very important game for Kentucky, especially just to win that one game,” he said. “This team has a will to win. No matter what we do, we’re always going to try to find a way and we’re always going to fight through it. We just showed the world that we could play together as one.”
The emergence of Richards hasn’t been a surprise to the Kentucky coach staff, including assistant Joel Justus, who said Richards is “a guy that has worked since he’s been here.”
“I think that Nick has not arrived by any means,” Justus said earlier this week. “Nick’s played well in the last couple of games, and I think if Nick was answering that question, he would say that he’s got a ways to go. That’s not a slight toward Nick or anything. It’s a fact of our guys come here to become their best version and your best version has always got to be how good can I be today and then what do I need to get better at tomorrow. Nick’s had that approach.”
Justus said Richards, who has scored double figures in 10 of 13 games, said his performances have given the junior forward more confidence.
“I think he’s gained confidence off of some good games, and I think that for us we just got to continue to coach him up and put him in the positions where he can be best used for us and for him to continue to gain confidence,” Justus said.
Richards, who started playing basketball as a teenager, said he plays for his family each time he takes the floor. “They always motivate me to play hard and play to the best of my abilities,” he said.
Although Richards’ collegiate career has been a roller-coaster ride, Justus said the junior forward hasn’t wavered in his approach during the past three years.
“I think Nick’s the kind of guy who pounds the rock every day,” he said. “It’s a story, you know, that there’s a rock in front of your front door and you hit it once a day, twice day, some days you hit it maybe five times and eventually one day it breaks into a thousand pieces and you’re able to get through. Did the rock break on that one day or did it break over time? I think that’s Nick Richards.
“He’s a guy who has pounded the rock since he got here, in the weight room, taking care of his body, his diet and obviously on the court. He’s a guy who has high expectations for himself and we have high expectations for him. So, I don’t think it’s a surprise, but I think it definitely sets the bar a little higher now.”
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Gametracker: Alabama at Kentucky, noon, Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.