Montgomery Answers the (Cow)Bell against State
He might have been facing a team Kenny Payne called the most physical in the Southeastern Conference, but EJ Montgomery was not about to let any opponent push him around Tuesday night.
His teammates, on the contrary, shoved him all over the place in celebration, ecstatic at the way he was playing.
“He’s an unbelievable teammate,” Nick Richards said. “He’s an unbelievable person. The fact that everything’s happening for him now is great. … When he plays good, we play good as a team.”
Montgomery has had plenty of moments of brilliance in his two UK seasons, but nothing quite like Tuesday night. Energetic on the glass, everywhere on defense and opportunistic on offense, Montgomery spearheaded an 80-72 victory for No. 15/16 Kentucky (17-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) over Mississippi State (14-8, 5-4 SEC).
“What EJ did is my vision for him,” John Calipari said.
The primary defender on Reggie Perry for most of the night, Montgomery didn’t back away from a player averaging a double-double and leading the SEC in rebounding.
“That’s all we’ve been trying to get him to do,” Calipari said. “Play through bumps. Want to get hit. Go in once. How about that one where the guy grabbed his arm and he still made it? How about that block down the other end. EJ was ridiculous. That’s who—that’s my vision of him. That’s what I think he is.”
In realizing that vision, Montgomery nearly matched the player he has known since fourth grade blow for blow. Montgomery had 12 points, eight rebounds and three steals, while Perry had 14 points, eight rebounds and four turnovers while shooting 4 of 16 from the field.
“I knew he was going to bring it,” Montgomery said. “Reggie’s my guy. We’ve known each other for a long time. It was just great competition.”
Montgomery absorbed all those shoves from his teammates with a smile on his face, and Calipari doesn’t think that was all about being happy at the way he was playing.
“I had a guy hit me today and say it’s the first time I saw EJ smile on court because he’s in shape,” Calipari said. “You know what you look like when you’re out of shape? You’re not smiling. You’re looking like you’re—he’s now out there alert and focused and ready, and when he needs a break, he says, ‘Give me a minute.’ “
Well conditioned or not, there weren’t many smiles for anyone last weekend at Auburn when the Tigers out-toughed the Wildcats and sent them to just their second loss since Dec. 21. Accepting a direct challenge from their coaching staff, UK’s bigs weren’t about to let that happen again.
“After Auburn, we went to practice and regrouped and just tried to go in there and fight,” Montgomery said. “That’s what we tried to show tonight.”
UK was giving up some bulk against a Mississippi State frontcourt that features the 250-pound Perry and the 255-pound Abdul Ado, but that’s what made aggressiveness so essential. The Bulldogs got their offensive rebounds – they are second best in the country in that category for a reason – but held only a plus-three rebounding margin after outrebounding six of their last seven opponents by double digits.
“They have got to hit first,” Calipari said. “They have got to want contact. They have got to play lower than the other guy. They can outrun people, which means they can react quicker to what’s happening. They outrun the big; now you are in control of what’s about to happen.”
Montgomery was the star in the first half, but it was Richards who exploded in the second. Richards scored 25 of his career-high 27 points after halftime, adding 11 rebounds for the game for his sixth double-double in 11 games. Those sorts of outings have become somewhat commonplace for Richards, UK’s breakout star, but Tuesday was something different for Montgomery.
Perhaps there is another breakout star waiting in the wings for Kentucky.
“He is a premiere player, one of the best players in the country,” Calipari said. “He’s just not done it yet, but tonight was that first step.”