In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 65-54 victory at Florida on Saturday:
1. Once again, dynamite defense cures most ills
The first half Saturday, Kentucky shot just 35.3 percent. It made just three of 14 three-point shots for 21.4 percent. For the game, it made just six of 21 threes for 28.6 percent. It shot a good but hardly great 41.1 percent for the game. And it won an SEC road game by 11 points.
It did so because of defense. And we are sensing a theme here. Making just nine of 33 shots (27.3 percent) in the second half, Florida shot just 34.9 for the game. That’s the fourth straight UK foe to fail to shoot 40 percent from the floor. Mississippi State shot 31.1 percent; Kansas 36.5; Vanderbilt 37.0 and now Florida’s 34.9.
Throw in Vanderbilt’s 36.2 percent in Rupp Arena on Jan. 12 and Georgia’s 30.4 percent in Athens on Jan. 15 and Kentucky has held six of its last seven opponents under 40 percent from the floor. (Auburn shot 46.4 on Jan. 19 at Auburn Arena against the Cats and it still wasn’t enough. UK prevailed 82-80.)
If you want to get into advanced analytics, Florida averaged 0.834 points per possession Saturday, the sixth time in seven games UK has held its opponent under 1.0. UK is 15-0 this season when it holds the opposition under a point per possession. It is 3-3 when it does not.
UK opponent shooting percentages last 10 games
2. EJ Montgomery did in fact make a difference
As my colleague Jerry Tipton correctly points out, PJ Washington posted his third consecutive double-double. The 6-foot-8 sophomore scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds Saturday to go with his 26 points and 12 rebounds at Vanderbilt on Tuesday and the 20 points and 13 rebounds against visiting Kansas last Saturday.
And yet in Saturday’s postgame, UK Coach John Calipari said EJ Montgomery was the difference in the game. “We needed another big guy to do something,” said Calipari, indirectly pointing to the fact Reid Travis was held to just six points and seven rebounds, while Nick Richards failed to score or find a rebound in his five minutes.
Enter Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 freshman who might have grabbed the game’s biggest rebound. Florida had cleared the double-digit lead threshold to go up 42-31 with 13:56 left in the game. With 12:32 remaining, Washington made a free throw, but missed the second. There was Montgomery who snatched the offensive rebound. That led to a play in which Washington tipped in a miss that cut the lead to 42-34 and appeared to ignite the visitors.
For the game, Montgomery didn’t take a shot or a free throw, but he did have three rebounds in his 10 minutes. Two of those were offensive rebounds. The fact that Calipari left Montgomery in the game for double-digit minutes in a physical road game such as Saturday shows he is starting to gain more confidence in the rookie. And Montgomery is starting to show more confidence in himself.
That could be huge down the stretch, especially with Richards continuing his up-and-down play. Calipari needs a sub with size to help spell Washington and Travis. Montgomery could be that guy.
3. This team isn’t deterred by deficits
UK trailed Florida by four points (33-29) at the half on Saturday. No big deal. UK trailed the Gators by 11 points (43-32) with less than 14 minutes on Saturday. That’s a great big “So?” This team apparently doesn’t mind digging itself out of a hole.
Last Saturday, the Cats trailed visiting Kansas 33-30 at halftime in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Calipari’s club then promptly outscored the Jayhawks 41-30 in the second half for a 71-63 win.
Back on Jan. 12 at Rupp, UK trailed Vanderbilt 30-28 at the half. No problem. The Cats clocked the Commodores 28-17 in the second half for a 56-47 victory.
And way back on Dec. 1, long before these Cats had figured things out, Kentucky trailed UNC Greensboro 40-37 at the half. Second half, UK rolled 41-21 for a 78-61 victory.
Overall: Kentucky is 4-1 when trailing at the half — the lone loss coming in the season-opener against Duke.
Not bad for a team that relies so heavily on freshmen.
UK basketball 2018-19