By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON —It didn’t take Kentucky long to get over its loss to Auburn.
The 15th-ranked Wildcats rebounded from a setback three days ago and led from start to finish in an 80-72 victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky (17-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) displayed the toughness it lacked in a 75-66 setback at Auburn last weekend and most of it came from junior forward Nick Richards and sophomore EJ Montgomery. Richards and Montgomery combined for 39 points and 19 rebounds.
Coming off a seven-point performance against the Tigers, Richards responded with a career-high 27 points and completed a double-double with 11 rebounds. Richards made 13 of 15 free throws against the Bulldogs and continued his string of impressive performances at home this season.
“We learned from the mistakes in (the Auburn game),” Richards said. “We watched the film and got better from the mistakes in practice. We weren’t rebounding and that’s basically it. We weren’t rebounding as a team and we just needed to (be) more aggressive. We were more active and we just got better from it.”
While Richards paced the Wildcats with 25 points in the second half, Montgomery scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds in the opening half and helped set the tone for the hosts. He made three of his last four shots after missing his first two attempts from the floor.
“What EJ did is what my vision for him is,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He didn’t take many jump shots and the ones he did, he missed. Everything else was at the rim. He squared up and drove the ball and that’s all we’ve been trying to get him to do. EJ was ridiculous. That’s my vision of him and that’s what I think he is. … He is a premier player, one of the best players in the country. He’s just not done it yet, but tonight was that first step.”
Montgomery and Richards combined for 10 of Kentucky’s 21 rebounds in the first half. Montgomery was smiling more than usual and reaping the benefits from his teammates.
“I felt very good tonight,” Montgomery said. “I was very confident and on the defensive end, I just wanted to bring the energy. We had a couple of tough practice after the Auburn game and I just tried to bring energy.”
The tandem of Montgomery and Richards made it hard for Mississippi State forward Reggie Perry, who tallied just 14 points. Perry, named SEC Player of the Week earlier this week, struggled, especially early and scored just five points in the first half.
“I thought (EJ) played well and obviously Richards was phenomenal,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “They really were outstanding and they both are really good players. Richards is really one of the dominant bigs in all of college basketball.”
Mississippi State had won its last five conference games but faltered against the Wildcats. As it has done most of the season, Kentucky relied on its defense to wear down the Bulldogs, especially in the second half.
“We knew we would get their best shot coming off a loss at Auburn,” Howland said. “We just had a hard time scoring, especially scoring around the basket, which is something we’ve been good at (this season).”
Immanuel Quickley followed Richards and Montgomery with 21 points. Quickley tied a school record and made good on all 14 of his attempts from the charity stripe. Overall, Kentucky was 31-of-36 from the foul line.
“We went up and knocked free throws,” Calipari said. “Nick made his. Immanuel made his. Ashton made his. You know, when a team is trying to foul you, you’ve got to be able to say, ‘you’re not winning this way, we’ll make these,’ and that was big for us.”
Kentucky made just one 3-pointer — a trey by Quickley in the opening half — but did most of its scoring in the post. The Wildcats did most of their scoring inside the arc and scored 38 points in the paint.
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Gametracker: Kentucky at Tennessee, 1 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is the sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.