Short of the Gateway Arch falling to the ground, there could not have been a bigger surprise in St. Louis on Friday.
Kevin Knox dove for a loose ball in Kentucky’s 62-49 victory over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“Surprising? Yeah,” Kentucky teammate PJ Washington said.
Washington linked Knox’s dive to Jarred Vanderbilt’s ankle injury. With Vanderbilt sidelined indefinitely, other UK players must do more.
“It was great to see Kev hustle …,” Washington said. “It makes us a lot different. I feel he’s one of the best players in the country when he does stuff like that.”
Knox, who is Kentucky’s leading scorer and three-point shooter, attributed his dive to something more than simply trying to help make up for Vanderbilt’s absence.
“It’s March,” he said. “It’s a different month.”
Knox was full of surprises. His nine rebounds equaled his total in the three most recent games, were his third-most in a game this season and the most he’s grabbed since getting 11 at LSU on Jan. 3.
“Kevin Knox had nine rebounds,” UK Coach John Calipari said in his opening statement of the postgame news conference. “I said after that, everybody in the building was surprised, but he did.”
Of course, the stakes are higher. Still, the sight of Knox on the floor scrambling for a loose ball stood out.
When was the last time Knox dove for a ball?
“This season?” he asked. “Not that many.”
That drew a laugh from reporters crowded around Knox him the UK’s postgame locker room.
“But tonight, I did a couple times,” he said. “They always get on me about that. … I’m going to show them this month it’s in me.”
Nick Richards went scoreless for the third time in the last four games. He has had one basket in the last five.
Georgia’s relatively small front line might have contributed his six minutes of playing time. That was his second-lowest number of minutes since playing three against Georgia in the regular-season game.
“I wouldn’t say I’m struggling,” Richards said. “It’s more a learning process.”
UK coaches are encouraging Richards to keep working at his game, practicing hard and watching video.
“You’re going to be fine,” he said the coaches tell him. “Don’t worry about it.”
In one of the prettier plays of recent memory, Quade Green used a touch pass to redirect the ball to Washington for a fast-break dunk.
“I was just making the right play at the right time,” Green said.
The first Kentucky-Georgia game was competitive from start to finish. UK won 66-61.
In the rematch, Kentucky led for 36 minutes and 40 seconds.
Why such a dramatic difference?
“It’s a bigger game,” Green said of Friday’s meeting in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. “That’s all it is. This one really counts.”
Washington said he does not mind mixing it up in a physical game.
“I’ve always enjoyed contact,” he said. “I’m a physical guy. I used to love contact when I was younger.”
Washington traced his love of contact to his younger days playing football at various times as a wide receiver, quarterback and running back.
“I stopped playing because I got tall,” he said.
Washington’s team-high 18 points meant he’d reached double figures for a seventh straight game.
Calipari had attributed Washington’s productive play of late to meshing with Vanderbilt.
But Vanderbilt’s absence against Georgia did not lessen Washington’s contributions.
“I love playing with any person on this team,” Washington said. “It’s easy to play with all these guys, they’re such great players.”
Wenyen Gabriel said he and Washington can also form an effective tandem.
“I think I play well with PJ, too,” Gabriel said. “We play well together in a different way. I get to stretch the floor out (as a three-point shooter) so they can’t really double team him. He can play one-on-one down there (in the low post).”
No surprise that UK players said containing guard Collin Sexton will be Job One against Alabama in Saturday’s semifinals. Green said he has known Sexton and played with and against him since the 10th grade.
“He’s fast,” Green said. “You’ve got to match his energy. He’s an energy rat (laughs). He loves his energy. Once we match it, we’ll be fine.”