By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
The Kentucky Wildcats had a huge 79-76 road win on Tuesday night over the LSU TIGERS. That win moved UK into sole possession of first place in the SEC pending the outcome of the Auburn TIGERS-Georgia Bulldogs game in Athens, Georgia Wednesday night.
Since everything involved with Kentucky Basketball seems to be coming up TIGERS lately I decided to discuss the key points of Tuesday night’s LSU game and the comments just happen to come in the form of an acrostic that spells TIGERS. Why not get an overload of the furry felines, right? So here goes.
The first key point from the win last night over LSU was something that has been missing in a lot of UK’s games this year and that’s Teamwork. Last night in Baton Rouge the Wildcats played team ball on both ends of the floor. They helped on defense, rotated to the ball, had several blocked shots that came from players that were playing help-side off the ball and on offense they passed the ball, moved to the open spot on the floor and made the extra pass to get a teammate a better shot. Even though their shots didn’t drop in the first half they got plenty of open looks from moving the ball either against LSU’s man defense and against their zone. They finished the game with 15 assists and those came even with point guard Ashton Hagans injured and sitting on the bench for the final 7 minutes of the game.
The next key point for me was Immanuel, as in Immanuel Quickley. Quickley was, once again, the go-to guy down the final stretch of the game. Overall he scored 21 points and had 4 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. Quickley seems to continue to get better and better each game and is now doing the little things that veteran leaders do. He’s talking more to his teammates about what to expect in certain situations, he’s using finesse – like head fakes on jump shots and body position on drives – to draw fouls and get to the free throw line where he has been deadly accurate at 92%. Add in the rebounds, steals and assists and you have an SEC Player of the Year candidate.
Next, UK’s Guard play was better than usual Tuesday night. The scoring numbers showed that 49 of UK’s 79 points came from their trio of guards – Quickley, Maxey and Hagans – plus Johnny Juzang. Not only that but 13 of the 15 assists were created by that same trio of guards and they also chipped in 11 of Kentucky’s 33 rebounds. To top it all off they shot 43% from beyond the arc. Just an all-around good night for UK’s guards.
One other element of the game that stood out was Kentucky’s Energy level. It appeared from the first tip that the Cats were prepared to go toe-to-toe with the Tigers. They didn’t back down on offense or defense, everyone – including the big men – ran the floor for a full forty minutes. They were extremely active on defense and had several players – Sestina and Montgomery to name a couple – make hustle plays on rebounds, loose balls and blocks that helped the Wildcats seal the game down the stretch.
Now this point may have some of you scratching your heads but I felt like Rebounding was a key to the game and here’s why. At halftime LSU had a 25-24 rebounding edge over the Cats and Kentucky had a 1 point lead. Over the course of the second half UK was outrebounded by a 20-9 margin. That usually spells doom for any team. But in this game Kentucky actually had a 15 point lead with 5 minutes to go in the second half while getting dominated on the boards. Rebounding was not the factor most expected it to be. And here’s why. It’s my last point.
Shooting, as in outside shooting. Rebounding was not a factor because the Wildcats shot the lights out in the second half. UK hit 74% on 17 of 23 overall field goal shooting and made 7 of 8 3-point shots for 87.5%. They got a huge lift from Nate Sestina and Ashton Hagans who went 3 for 3 and 1 for 1 respectively on 3-point shots in the second half. It’s very difficult to beat a team that has Kentucky’s length and athleticism if they are going to hit 74% from the field in a half. Had they not had a total ball handling collapse against the LSU press in the game’s last five minutes the final score would have been a runaway. As it is, the phenomenal outside shooting helped UK weather the storm at the end and secure the victory.
So there you have it, the key points from Tuesday night’s win over LSU in the form of an acrostic that spells out TIGERS. With the Florida Gators headed to town on Saturday here’s hoping for another win that includes some assists, teamwork, offensive fireworks, rebounding and steals. That spells A-T-O-R-S. Wonder what UK will come up with on Saturday that could start with a G? Guess we’ll have to wait until Saturday to find out.