By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Kentucky’s game last Saturday against the Ole Miss Rebels was a good news/bad news affair.
The good news is that UK won the game 67-62. They played extremely poorly in most phases of the game and still pulled out a critical SEC victory in Rupp Arena. In fact, they played so poorly that UK Coach John Calipari said this about what he thought of the game. “This was like a rock fight,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “(It) ended up being a great win.” And it was. It helped propel Kentucky into sole possession of first place in the SEC after Alabama upset LSU and Missouri did the same to the Auburn Tigers on Saturday.
Now, the bad news from this game. The Wildcats outside shooting was horrific. They managed to make a total of two three-pointers out of a total of twenty-two shots. That’s 9% shooting from beyond the arc. That usually spells disaster for most teams but on a day when Ole Miss shot 35% from 3-point range and 40% overall the Cats managed to do other things well, like outrebounding the visitors 41-33. They also had more assists – 8 to 3 – and shot double the amount of free throws – 24 free throws for UK versus 11 for Ole Miss – to help offset the extremely poor shooting.
More good news for Kentucky was the continued strong play of Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley in the final few minutes of the game. They refuse to give in to the pressure and they seem to find a way to win. Nick Richards said about the comeback by the Cats in the last couple of minutes of the game, “I think it’s a great sign,” said Richards, “We showed that we have that winning mentality — that will to win. I wasn’t at my best, especially in the first half, and I really wasn’t at my best the entire game. We still came out and found a way to win.” Richards finished the game with 16 points and seven rebounds.
Immanuel Quickley was also good news for the Wildcats. Although he only hit 27% from the field for the game he found ways to help the team. He scored 13 of his points in the final 11 minutes after UK trailed Ole Miss by 7 points – 45-38. He also chipped in 3 rebounds while shooting 8-10 from the free throw line. Quickley, like Richards, believed that it was a positive sign that Kentucky could still win even when the offense wasn’t clicking. He said, “That’s really what the (NCAA) tournament is really all about. You want to be at your best when tournament time comes. When you have a bad shooting night in the tournament you can lose a game, and just knowing that we can still win games even when we’re not shooting (well). Our defense came through for us and that’s really what it’s all about.”
Now for some more bad news from the Wildcats win. The overall play from point guard Ashton Hagans was – to put it nicely – less than stellar. Hagans scored 6 points on overall 3 for 11 shooting while going 0 for 6 from beyond the arc. He had 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 turnovers and 5 personal fouls. He also shot 0 free throws for the game. Those aren’t normally numbers that represent the starting point guard of the winning team. UK Coach John Calipari admitted that Hagans struggled Saturday.
He said, “He was better last game. He struggled a little bit this game. He got beat up a little bit, but he’s fine. He’s the least of our worries.” I’m not sure I would say that Hagans is the least of their worries after a stretch of 10 games in a row where Hagans has averaged 4 turnovers per game while shooting 18 percent from 3-point range.
Coach Calipari loves to say that “you are what your stats say you are” except in the case of point guards. He said about Hagans, “Ashton is my point guard. I’m with him. The one thing I do know, he’ll fight to win a game. He wasn’t great at the end of this game, but very rarely does he make mistakes at the end.”
So there you have it. Some good news to build some hope around and some bad news that could cause some concern as Kentucky heads into the final weeks of the SEC season.
Overall, “a win is a win is a win” or as UK Football Coach Mark Stoops is fond of saying, “I’m never going to apologize for a win.” And I understand that sentiment completely. That UK win Saturday moved Kentucky into sole possession of first place in the SEC and moved the Cats up to a 20-5 record. And the Wildcats have had to scratch and claw to get there. Nothing has come easy all season long and Coach Calipari seems to like it that way. After the Ole Miss game he said this about this team of “Can’t Hold A Lead” Cats, “As you go through seasons, all you want to see your team do is fight,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They’re not going to be perfect. They’re not making every shot. They’re going to have bad shooting nights. You just want to see them fight, and I would guess our fans — just fight. Don’t get pushed around, just fight. And we’ve had teams come in here and make every shot, and okay, you lost.”
And that quote seems to be a good description of the 2020 version of the Wildcats – not always great execution but a lot of fight. A will to win. Here’s hoping that is enough to get them over the hump once they get into the NCAA Tournament.