With Kentucky trailing by a double-digit margin more than seven minutes into the second half, EJ Montgomery made a breathtaking play. Literally.
Montgomery hustled to rebound a missed free throw by PJ Washington. With the resulting possession, Kentucky got a putback that narrowed Florida’s lead to 42-34 with 12:23 left.
When asked if Montgomery’s rebound should be considered key in UK’s come-from-behind 65-54 victory Saturday, Florida Coach Mike White said, “My goodness. Absolutely.
“The whole staff exhales when it happens and there are big plays. These are plays we stress a lot. That we show on film. Winning plays for the teams that execute them … and deflating plays for the team that it happens against.”
UK Coach John Calipari credited Montgomery’s contribution — three rebounds and one block in 10 minutes — as all important. In part because Kentucky enjoyed a clear advantage in size. Montgomery is one of four capable “bigs” for UK, while Florida’s front line is largely depleted because of injuries.
“I’m so happy for EJ Montgomery because I thought he was the difference in the game,” Calipari said. “Because we needed one more big guy to do something. Go get balls. … Be active defensively. He guarded the ball.”
UK’s leading scorer, Tyler Herro, also spoke of Montgomery making a difference. Montgomery’s three rebounds equaled the second-most he’s gotten since Dec. 15.
“He made a big impact on the game,” Herro said. “Besides PJ (Washington), EJ made us change our energy.”
As Calipari saw it, Ashton Hagans did not have a vintage performance. But the freshman played well down the stretch of the game.
“He stepped back in the first half,” the UK coach said. “In the last seven, eight minutes, he was the player he’s been for the last month.
“But he can’t afford that. I told him, ‘You (almost) lose this game because of how you played, it’s a great lesson. Now the question is … do you learn from that or do you think that’s OK?”
Hagans came into the game ranked 28th nationally in steals with an average of 2.25 per game. When asked about facing Hagans, Florida’s freshman point guard, Andrew Nembhard, said, “There’s a lot of good guards in the SEC. So I think it was just a regular night in the SEC. Nothing crazy.”
Washington contributed 15 points, 12 rebounds and two passes out of a double team that resulted in three-point baskets.
Three weeks earlier, Tennessee forward (and preseason pick to be the SEC’s Player of the Year) Grant Williams scored 20 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had four assists in a 78-67 victory over Florida.
When asked to compare Washington and Williams, Florida center Kevarrius Hayes said, “I’d say similar in a lot of aspects. They’ve both kind of expanded their games to where they can be a threat outside and also very strong inside.”
Calipari suggested that the game could serve as part of the ongoing learning experience that is a college season.
“I keep telling these guys there’s all kind of stuff we’ve got to learn in this part of the season,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to learn how to play when you’re down. You’ve got learn to finish games. You’ve got to make the tough plays. Well, there was a lot of that today.
“You’ve got to learn (how) to play when you’re up 12. That’s just as important as when you’re down 11.”
A team must learn to expand leads that take away an opponent’s will, Calipari said. “Because if you give people hope in March, somebody’s going to beat you.
“Using all of these as teaching lessons is what we’re trying to do.”
Home and away
A pattern continued with Tyler Herro. He continued to be more productive in “true” away games.
Herro led UK with 19 points. That increased his scoring average in “true” road games to 16.5 points. In all other games (home and neutral sites), he’s averaging 12.3 points.
Herro, who has claimed to enjoy in the role of villain on the road, has also shot better in “true” road games. He made six of eight shots at Florida. That increased his accuracy to 55.1 percent in “true” road games. He’s made 39.1 percent of his shots in other games.
There’s also marked improvement from three-point range: 44.4 percent in “true” road games (he made three of four shots from beyond the arc at Florida) and 31.1 percent in other games.
The game was Florida’s third sellout of the season. Earlier games against Michigan State and Tennessee also sold out.
The Feb. 23 game against Missouri is also sold out.