UK Speeds Up Patient Mississippi State
There was no mystery about it. An experienced Mississippi State team was going to test a young Kentucky group with a patient offense.
The Wildcats flipped the script on that, instead throwing the Bulldogs off with their defensive pressure.
“In general, we were rushed offensively tonight,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said. “I thought they did a good job speeding us up and getting us hurried. We were playing a little faster and not really controlled enough offensively, and credit their defense.”
Playing a second of three straight games against ranked opponents, No. 8/9 UK (15-3, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) stifled the No. 22/22 Bulldogs (14-4, 2-3 SEC) in a 76-55 victory, its most lopsided in conference play. The Bulldogs entered Rupp Arena as the nation’s 20th-best offense according to kenpom.com, but left having scored just 0.775 points per possession – their fewest of the season by a wide margin.
“We’re just coming together, listening to what Coach has got going on at practice,” said Ashton Hagans, who had five points, a career-high nine assists and a pair of steals. “We’re competing, everybody’s playing each other physical at practice. We’re just trying to get better and go from there as the season goes along.”
The Cats were particularly stingy beyond the arc. Kentucky has had well documented struggles guarding the 3 this season, but held Mississippi State to 3-of-20 shooting from deep. The Bulldogs were shooting 38.3 percent from 3 entering the game, good for 31st nationally and second in the SEC.
“It’s always an emphasis, I guess, when we’re going in because we know 3s can hurt us more than obviously 2s,” said Tyler Herro, who scored 18 points. “I think running guys off the line and not allowing 3-point shots.”
The fact that UK defended so well allowed the Cats to withstand an offensive lull between an early outburst that helped them build a double-digit lead and a late-game surge that resulted in the 21-point win. Per usual, that defense started at the point of attack.
“I thought Ashton—when you’re on the ball, playing like he plays, it bleeds into everybody else,” John Calipari said. “If your guy at the point is getting beat on a dribble and can’t control the guy a little bit, you’re in jeopardy. That’s why when we recruit point guards, if we have a guy, I tell them: How are we going to start our defense if he can’t stay in front of the ball?”
Thanks to Hagans, UK needs not answer that question. With him taking the reins over the last month-plus UK has won eight of nine games and surged back into the top 10, but Hagans is hardly the only Cat coming on strong defensively. Jemarl Baker continues to provide solid minutes when he gets his opportunities, while Herro’s all-around offensive game has been complemented by rapid improvement on the other end of the floor.
“I think it’s night and day for me personally and the team, honestly,” Herro said. “I think just continuing to work hard like we’ve been on the defensive end, getting stops and I think that’s what’s good.”
The player responsible for likely the biggest stop of the evening was EJ Montgomery, who came from nowhere to swat a layup by Quinndary Weatherspoon that would have cut UK’s once-comfortable lead to one point with a little more than 13 minutes left. The block came directly to Herro, who delivered a beautiful pass to Nick Richards for an emphatic dunk on the ensuing break.
“It changed the game,” Calipari said. “If we had another big guy in, and he just acted like, well, it’s not my man and didn’t block that shot and that ball goes in, we could have lost the game. That changed the game. Those kind of plays, one, they make it so guards won’t drive in there, but two, they changed the game because you get breakouts down the other end. And he and Nick are able to do that for us.”
Montgomery and Richards appear to be coming on strong for an entire team doing the same. After a lockdown defensive effort against Mississippi State, UK is riding high ahead of a highly anticipated matchup with Kansas this weekend.
Not too high, Calipari will ensure.
“They are getting better,” Calipari said. “Now I’ve just got to keep an eye on being humble and being hungry. Not, you know, getting carried away, because we’re just—we’re just beginning the climb of where we need to go.”