Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 69-49 win over Georgia on Tuesday at Stegeman Coliseum:
1. Good guard play makes all the difference.
You don’t have to be Jay Bilas or a Basketball Bennie to pinpoint the overriding difference in the Cats’ 20-point win over the host Bulldogs. Kentucky has a blossoming freshman sensation as its point guard. Georgia does not.
Actually, the Bulldogs thought they had Ashton Hagans, the Cartersville, Ga., native who committed to his home state school when Mark Fox was the UGA coach. Then Fox was fired. Hagans promptly (a) decommitted and (b) phoned John Calipari. One thing lead to another and the next thing you know the 6-foot-3 ball hawk was re-classifying to enter college a year early as a Kentucky Wildcat.
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His rapid emergence has truly been astounding. Hagans had not scored in double figures in a single game before scoring 11 points in the 71-58 win at Louisville on Dec. 29. Since then, he has scored in double figures every game — 12 at Alabama, 18 against Texas A&M, 15 against Vanderbilt last Saturday and a career-high 23 on Tuesday.
He did so in front of grinning friends and family who made the trip to Athens and got the last laugh after listening to the Georgia fans boo every time he touched the ball and chant “Traitor, Traitor” when Hagans toed the free-throw line. As Calipari has said, often his players perform poorly in a homecoming game. Not Hagans. He was inspired.
Georgia fans had to think of what might have been. Tom Crean is a good coach who will no doubt recruit better Bulldogs. His debut edition, however, lacks a point guard who can run the offense and create good shots for teammates. No Georgia player had more than two assists on the night. And the Bulldogs were a ghastly four of 27 from behind the three-point stripe. (Remember, the Dawgs were one of 20 from three in a 46-point loss at Tennessee.)
Meanwhile, Hagans went nine of 18 from the floor, one of three from three-point range and four of five from the foul line. He also had four assists, four steals and five rebounds. It was his night.
2. Nick Richards gave the Cats just what they needed.
A couple of weeks back, Calipari was asked about freshman forward EJ Montgomery and after a couple of brief comments, Cal switched the topic to Nick Richards. The sophomore center, said the coach, was the one UK needed to get going. Richards, said Calipari, was a player who could make a difference for this team.
At Georgia, Richards showed just what the coach was talking about. The sophomore scored only four points, but he grabbed seven rebounds, blocked three shots and was a positive presence in 15 disruptive minutes off the bench.
“I felt comfortable,” Richards said afterward.
Georgia started the game dunking everything in sight. Pick-and-rolls. Drives to the basket. Switches. Fast breaks. You name it. Richards’ entrance and presence helped put an end to that. After shooting 40 percent the first half, the Bulldogs were just five of 26 from the floor in the second half. This, after Vanderbilt made six of 24 second-half shots in the Commodores’ 56-47 loss to Kentucky last Saturday.
Montgomery wasn’t bad, either. The freshman scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. The 6-10 forward showed flashes encouraging enough to make you think he could be more of a factor as the conference season progresses.
3. Keldon Johnson doesn’t have to score for UK to win.
“Oh, he got a goose egg,” Calipari almost squealed as he squinted at the stat sheet during the post-game press conference. “That’s great.”
What’s great is that UK’s leading scorer, averaging 15.5 points per game, did not score a single point and the Cats still registered a 20-point road win. Johnson missed all six of his shots, including one three-point attempt in his 27 minutes. He didn’t make it to the foul line. He did have an assist and two steals. Kentucky rolled anyway.
That was made-to-order for Calipari’s message of the week that numbers don’t matter. Your number of points scored. Your number of shot attempts. Both meaningless. He didn’t mention this, but I thought back to UK’s win over North Carolina on Dec. 22. Ashton Hagans scored seven points, yet afterward UNC Coach Roy Williams said that the point guard “dominated the game.”
So there were plenty of encouraging signs Tuesday. After holding Vanderbilt to 17 points on Saturday, UK outscored Georgia 34-18 over the final 20 minutes. (It’s first time the Cats have held consecutive opponents under 50 points since the 2014-15 season.) On the road, the Cats took a four-point halftime lead, scored the first nine points of the second half, and turned a conference road conference game into a conference road romp.
All without Keldon Johnson scoring a point.