11:14:25 MBB vs Mississippi State

Kentucky junior forward Nick Richards high fives fans as he heads to the locker room after the game against Mississippi State on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 80-72. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

If ‘Junior Year Nick Richards’ was to pick a game to score a career high in points, he’s probably glad he did it against Mississippi State. 

The 6-foot-11 big man helped the Kentucky Wildcats (17-5, 7-2 SEC) seal an 80-72 win against the Bulldogs (14-8, 5-4 SEC) in a late matchup Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, reaching a career-high 27 points. 

After a combined nine points from Kentucky bigs Richards and EJ Montgomery in the Cats’ loss to Auburn, much of the talk heading into Tuesday’s matchup was how Kentucky would fare low in the post against Mississippi State forwards Reggie Perry and Abdul Ado. The duo, Perry standing at 6-foot-10, 250 pounds while Ado an inch taller and five pounds heavier, make for an immense presence in the paint. Perry is the Bulldogs’ leading scoring and rebounder with 17.2 and 10 per game, respectively, and Ado leads his team in blocks with 1.7 per game. Montgomery and Richards held their own on both sides of the ball, containing Perry and Ado to 21 point and combining for 39 points themselves. 

“I mean, Richards is really one of the dominant bigs in all of college basketball with the way he shoots the ball, his foul shooting was tremendous,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said. “I thought they did a good job protecting the paint. They’re good.”

In addition to his 27 points, Richards also added a team-high 11 boards, which gives him his 10th double-double of the season. In his first two seasons as a Wildcat, he had just one. 

Heading into the locker room at halftime, the Cats were up 31-12, Montgomery was establishing himself as one of Kentucky’s best players of the game, and Richards had just two points. Yes, two. 

“I was mad that I only had two points, but we don’t really emphasize scoring in my game,” Richards said. “It’s more rebounding, blocking shots, defending the pick and roll, contesting layups without fouling. The points will come here and there, you never know. I never strive to get a certain number. It just happens.”

Part of the reason why Richards was able to score 25 points in the second half was how often he was getting to the free throw line—he went a career-high 13-of-15 from the line in the last 20 minutes. 

“I say it all the time, that dude is unreal,” graduate transfer Nate Sestina said. “He is in great shape. He can grab rebounds, block shots, he does big things for us. He gets hands in passing lanes and all that stuff. It’s just all starting to pay off for him and it’s awesome to see because he deserves it. That dude is always in the gym, he is always working out. It’s big time for him, an it’s big time for us too.”

Kentucky’s next test will be border rival Tennessee when they face each other Saturday in Knoxville. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. on CBS.