There had been flashes throughout the season. Short spurts offering a glimpse of what could be. Tonight, it all came together in what may be remembered as the trampoline game for EJ Montgomery’s Kentucky career.
The sophomore forward recorded 12 points and eight rebounds in the Wildcats 80-72 win over Mississippi State, his first game with those numbers in the same night since early December against Farleigh Dickinson.
“He was active around the rim, made a couple shots,” Bulldog guard Robert Woodard II said. “[He] has a great post move and great post work.”
Coach Calipari spoke glowingly of Montgomery after the game, expressing belief that the effort is just the beginning of what he can provide.
“What EJ did is what my vision for him is,” Coach Cal said. “How about that one where the guy grabbed his arm and he still made it?... [He] was ridiculous. That’s my vision of him.”
The Fort Pierce, Florida native recorded three steals, tying his career-high from last season’s NCAA Tournament matchup with Wofford. The numbers are all well and good, but his most notable stat isn’t any of the previously mentioned. That distinction belongs to another career-high he set tonight: 32 minutes played. The coaching staff has consistently harped on one thing as Montgomery’s biggest obstacle, and Calipari thinks that’s what enabled this performance.
“Why do you think he was able to do that? What have we been doing with him?” he asked, before providing the answer: conditioning.
“It hurts. It’s hard… [It’s] starting to pay off,” he added. “Now he’s got to step on the gas and even go farther.”
Montgomery didn’t concur about better conditioning being the main reason for his quality performance, but did acknowledge improvement there has helped him.
“I can stay out there longer,” he said. “just being free and not tired… I can just go out there and do my thing.”
Montgomery and the other forwards – Nick Richards, Nate Sestina and Keion Brooks Jr. – combined for 45 points and 23 rebounds after contributing just 14 points and 13 rebounds against Auburn. He also played a key role in limiting Bulldog forward Reggie Perry below his averages.
“Reggie has been playing so good… he was bound to have a bad night,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said. “He’s a great player and he’ll bounce back from this.”
More than anything, this game was a chance for Howland’s team to put its first notable road win on its resume for March. They didn’t capitalize, but the low-risk/high-reward nature of a game like this doesn’t harm their case.
“We’re trying to find a way to the NCAA Tournament, and this was a great opportunity to help that,” he said. “That didn’t happen, but it didn’t hurt us that much because we’re playing a great team on their home floor.”
The Bulldogs now stand at 14-8 with a 5-4 mark in the SEC. They fell from fourth to sixth in the conference standings, but are just a half game back of both Florida and South Carolina, who each play on Wednesday evening. Kentucky is up to 17-5 (7-2 SEC), which has them in the three-spot due to Auburn’s head-to-head tiebreaker.
Mississippi State heads back to Starkville for a date with Vanderbilt on Saturday. Kentucky will go down the road to Knoxville to play rival Tennessee. That game is also Saturday, and is set to tip at 1:00 p.m. ET. It can be seen on CBS.