By LARRY VAUGHT
EJ Montgomery gave Kentucky a needed boost with 12 points on 5-for-11 shooting, eight rebounds, three teals and one blocked shot in his best 32 minutes of the season.
Immanuel Quickly was money at the foul line going 14-for-14 and had 21 points and four rebounds in 38 minutes.
The Cats went 12-for-12 at the foul line in the final two minutes and 31-for-36 in the game during the 80-72 victory over Mississippi State.
However, the biggest Kentucky statement came from junior Nick Richards. He had his first subpar SEC game at Auburn Saturday in UK’s loss. In the first half Tuesday night, he had just one field goal and five rebounds.
In the second half, though, he was sensational and showed whey he has to be the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year when he had 25 points and six rebounds. He finished the game 7-for-10 from the field and 13-for-15 at the foul line in 33 minutes going against Mississippi State center Reggie Perry, who was averaging a double-double coming into the game.
Perry was the choice of many as the SEC Player of the Year favorite. He was also the kind of tough physical player that has bothered Richards. Perry finished with 14 points and eight rebounds before fouling out. He was just 4-for-16 from the field and also had four turnovers. He obviously got impatient and frustrated by UK coach John Calipari’s strategy to double team but he also got out fought by Richards.
Kentucky had let a double-digit lead shrink to 60-54 when Richards hit a 15-footer. Next he scored on a dunk after an Ashton Hagans’ lob.
A Richards’ turnover — which was due more to a poor pass than his mistake not being able to catch it — enabled State to cut the lead to 64-58 with 2:33 to play. After Montgomery missed two free throws, Richards beat Perry for the offensive rebound and then hit two free throws when he got fouled.
“That’s what Kentucky did not do at Auburn. That is rebounding at a Final Four level,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said.
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said Perry had been playing so well that he was due to “come up short” in a game — kind of similar to what happened to Richards at Auburn. However, Howland did nothing but praise Richards just like he did the day before the game.
“Richards is really one of the dominant bigs in all of college basketball,” Howland said.
How dominant? Well Dykes believes he could be playing himself in the NBA draft lottery.
“I have talked to four or five NBA scouts and he is a certain first round (pick) and trending to lottery pick,” Dykes said. “He’s a 7-footer with guard speed and toughness, can protect the rim, hit 15 footers.”