(LUBBOCK, Tx) -- They say that everything’s bigger in Texas.
I can confirm it—especially when it comes to basketball games. The Kentucky Wildcats—behind another BIG 25-point, 14-rebound, 4-block performance by Nick Richards—traveled down to Lubbock and handed the Texas Tech Red Raiders a BIG 76-74 defeat on their own home court. In their typical nerve-wracking fashion, the Wildcats lost a 10-point lead in regulation and came back to win it in overtime.
It was another BIG road win for Kentucky—this time as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge between two programs as different as night and day.
On one hand, you had Kentucky and their blue-blooded royalty making only their second appearance against Tech in Lubbock. The first time was a long time ago—1965 to be exact—when Lyndon Johnson was president and John Calipari was entering first grade. If you’re old enough to remember, that was the year of Rupp’s Runts, as the Wildcats won 66-60.
On the other hand, you had the Red Raiders—a moderately successful program on the rise—fresh off of an impressive NCAA Tournament run last year where they lost to Virginia in the championship game. Coach Chris Beard, anointed as the next coming of Coach Cal, was looking for another significant notch on his ever-expanding belt of a resume.
“It sucks that someone has to lose a game like this,” a disappointed Beard said in his postgame presser. “But credit Kentucky. I have a lot of respect for their program. Congratulations to them. What a great win on the road.”
Like Sherman’s scorched earth march to the sea, John Calipari’s road journey through the South has been just as defining. Athens, Fayetteville, and now Lubbock. If not for a miraculous half-court bank shot at the buzzer, you could easily add Columbia to the list.
Those are hard places to play. As much as Kentucky fans expect their team to win every game, I’m not sure how much of BBN expected wins in all these hostile environments. John Calipari talked about “fight” from day one. This team’s finally giving it to him.
They’ll crash your Super Bowl, eat all your food, drink all your beer, steal your girlfriend, and ruin your weekend.
I’m not sure there could have been a bigger buildup to this one. Tech students camped out all night and were treated to free beer before the game. And then—dressed in all black—poured like lava into the arena two-and-a-half hours before the tip. The flow kept coming and coming. By the time pregame introductions rolled around, it truly was the biggest darn student section I had ever seen.
At the end of the day, this Kentucky team found the will to win. Ashton Hagans didn’t have a particularly sterling offensive game, but if you need a defensive stop or a steal to ice the game, then he’s your man. He’s always been all about fight and toughness. And he’s still the heart and soul of this team—a cold-blooded assassin when March rolls around. He’s the best point guard in the country according to Coach Cal. I’ll take him over anybody else.
Immanuel Quickley has been as consistent as they come. In this game, he poured in 21 points on 4-8 three-point shooting, including that half-court heave at the end of the half that ended up being the difference in the game. To have another solid, experienced, and dependable floor leader is a luxury not many other teams possess. Kentucky has that in Quickley. He’s a horse you can ride into the Final Four.
And finally, there’s no one like Nick. Nick Richards is not only playing himself into a first-round NBA draft choice, he may be moving into lottery territory. The guy got himself into shape, grew a new pair of hands, stopped going for shot fakes, and started draining jump shots. And he did all of it at seven feet tall—and you can’t teach seven feet. Keep this up, and Kentucky’s postseason chances just increased ten-fold.
“I kissed Nick on the forehead,” Coach Cal said after the game. “I said (to the players), ‘there are about three of you in this room who need to do this, but I will do it for you.’ So I kissed him on the forehead.”
You’re not alone, Coach. I’m sure there are a lot of Kentucky fans who would love to kiss him too. One thing’s for sure–you can kiss Nick goodbye to the NBA.
The Cats travel to Auburn next Saturday. Time to ruin another weekend.
Dr. John Huang is a regular columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.