While the NBA continues to grab the main headlines, the college basketball season rumbles on and the Kentucky Wildcats continue to set the pace at the top of the Southeastern Conference. A narrow victory over LSU extended the Wildcats winning streak to five games and asserted their dominance at the top of a tight conference. And even more impressive is the fact the Wildcats have only lost 2 games from 14 in the whole of 2020. The most important thing for Kentucky fans is the constantly rising number in the win column but the recent matches haven’t been plain sailing for the Wildcats.
Give their impressive run of form, this has sparked a significant interest in this particular division of basketball. The Wilcats are priced at a general 25/1 in the future markets, shortened from an opening price of a general 33/1. Bookies are likely to have seen an increase in the volume of stakes in this particular division, as its competitiveness has sparked interest from those who punt on NBA. With more information about NCAA hoops readily available, coupled with increased coverage of the events, punters are looking for value in the lower divisions.
As mentioned, the Wildcats haven’t had it all their own way. There has been evidence of a slight weakness against teams in the lower half of the division, as seen in narrow victories over Vanderbilt and Mississippi but what will delight Kentucky fans is the grit and resilience their team have shown in those tight games. Those comeback victories against the two above-mentioned teams could indeed prove pivotal in deciding who receives the automatic bid from SEC. And when the chips, especially against those teams chasing automatic qualification are down, Kentucky brings its A-game and the victory over LSU could prove vital come the end of the season.
That win took Kentucky’s record in the conference season to 11-2 and with only five games left, the Wildcats are in a great position to advance from the SEC. The three teams directly below them, Auburn, LSU and Florida all boast a 9-4 record, with Auburn and LSU also on a two-game losing streak. The victory over LSU was hugely significant in building a small buffer for Kentucky over the chasing pack.
The game itself wasn’t the cleanest display of finishing, but what it did demonstrate is that grit and resilience the Wildcats are showing in the latter part of the conference season. Although LSU were on a two-game losing streak, those losses were away from home and only by single digits too and in the same fixture last year, LSU beat Kentucky 73-71 so the Wildcats knew they were in for a game.
In a game that ebbed and flowed throughout, the Kentucky defense and timely points scores ultimately secured the win. LSU started brightly with a nice layup from Darius Days and a dunk by Emmitt Williams giving them an early lead. But something Kentucky have developed this season is an ability to stay in games even if they are on the back foot. A series of missed points from LSU with the score at 6-4 LSU kept the Wildcats in touch and allowed them to claw their way back into the tie.
Star player Nick Richards got his first points of the match with a dunk to turn the tie around, but the first 3-pointer was scored by LSU’s Charles Manning Jr with the first half clock at 14:22. Kentucky managed their first 3-pointer on 12:10 with Immanuel Quickley finishing from the right side of the D following good work from Ashton Hagans, who managed to draw a couple of defenders to him before setting up Quickley. Layups were exchanged before two quickfire 3-pointers from Manning Jr and Trendon Watford swung the tie back in LSU’s favor. But a series of ultimately game-changing events occurred with just 30 seconds left before the buzzer, starting with Hagans scoring a 3-pointer to give Kentucky a narrow 29-28 lead. However, it was a block by Richards right before half time that preserved this lead.
Hagan took his taste for 3-pointers into the second half, finding the basket on 19:28 and from this moment, Kentucky would not relinquish the lead again. Quickley laid the foundations finishing with 14 points from the second half, including another 3-pointer on 13:19 with Richards adding to his points tally002C but it was Nate Sestina who was the game-changer with two very quickfire 3-pointers to take Kentucky’s lead to 67-52. The Wildcats were certainly finding the basket when they needed to, but it was their stubbornness (and LSU profligacy) at the other end that kept LSU at arm’s length. With the score at 56-49, LSU missed a series of layups, jump shots and rebounds, all in the same play and they were made to pay with Kentucky breaking down the other end to score through Tyrese Maxey.
On a night where their offense wasn’t quite finding their range, the defense really stepped up and repelled a late LSU comeback to secure what could be a vital victory in the race for automatic qualification.
Should they gain the automatic bid to the next round of games, Kentucky will surely be setting their sights on another National Championship success. As one of the most successful teams ever to grace the NCAA, Kentucky Wildcats will be looking to end a mini drought of seven years without a title. Their last success came in 2012, also under current Coach John Calipari and they will be desperate to add to the 8 titles they currently hold. Only UCLA (11) has more. But before they start to think of the latter rounds, Kentucky Wildcats have some tough fixtures to negotiate.
They play second-placed Florida twice and automatic qualification-chasing Auburn. But if Kentucky can keep their offensive players sharp, and their defense rock solid, they have a great chance of pushing for that 9th championship.