“I don’t know that there are three better guards in the league, in the country, what team has got three better guards?”
Those three guards that No. 15 Auburn (24-5, 11-5 SEC) head coach Bruce Pearl was referring to—Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey and Ashton Hagans—combined for 39 points in No. 8 Kentucky’s (24-5, 14-2 SEC) 73-66 win over the Tigers Saturday.
Kentucky’s second of its pair of SEC Player of the Year candidates in Quickley finished with 18 points in Rupp Arena, but only shot 3-of-10 from the field. That means he went a perfect 11-for-11 from the free throw line. Quickley also notched his second double-double of the season, grabbing a career-high 12 rebounds in the win over the Tigers.
“There were a couple tough rebounds but some of them were just free throw rebounds, so I was just trying to get in there and do anything to help my team win,” Quickley said. “Nick Richards was boxing out, so was EJ Montgomery, all the guys were really so I was just trying to get in there and help my team.”
The sophomore entered the game shooting an SEC-leading 91.5 percent from the free throw line, and has now made 17 straight. That’s his fourth streak this season of 17 or more consecutive makes.
"You know we work on free throws every day in practice, I work on it in my workouts as well and when shots aren’t falling, you know you’re going to need that especially in a tournament game," Quickley said. "Sometimes you have an off night and you don’t want that to be the reason you go home.”
Maxey also held his own from the line-- he shot 7-for-8 from the charity stripe and added seven rebounds and four assists.
“Coach Cal always tells us that we have to get rebounds,” Maxey said. “I mean we’re small, but we have to come up with balls he always says. I missed one late and he told me I better get every single one that comes off the rim. So that is what I tried to do. Immanuel did too as well, Nate (Sestina), everybody was rebounding.”
The third guard of the UK trio, sophomore Hagans, had just four points on 2-for-13 field goal shooting, but added a team-high five assists, three rebounds, three steals and a turnover. Despite some of his low numbers, Kentucky head coach John Calipari isn’t too worried about him.
“And again, I know Ashton went 2-for-13, but when he goes five assists, one turnover, three steals, and he defends like, we will win,” Calipari said. “He can go 2-for-13.”
So what is it that makes these three click so well? Quickley says the secret is versatility.
“I think we’re really versatile. Coach gives us a lot of freedom,” Quickley said. “Tyrese is versatile—he can shoot, defend, pass. Ashton can shoot, defend, pass, get to the rim, throw lobs. This whole team is really versatile as well, so I think we can do a lot of stuff, a lot of interchangeable parts and that’s what makes us special.”
With the win, the Cats clinched the regular-season SEC title. They have two games left on their schedule until they head to Nashville for the SEC Tournament.
“It feels great,” Maxey said. “I mean the hard work that we put in during the summer, fall, and now has finally paid off and we are not finished. Not done yet.”
Kentucky takes on Tennessee in its last home game on Tuesday with a 9 p.m. tip.