LEXINGTON, Ky. – Saturday’s game between Gonzaga and Kentucky featured eight players who’ve been listed as potential first- and second-round selections by various NBA draft analysts and pundits since the 2023-24 college basketball season started.
All eight reside on John Calipari’s roster, with five making up the Wildcats’ young, highly skilled backcourt.
Kentucky’s guards may have more to celebrate come draft night, but Gonzaga’s less-heralded backcourt got the final say on Saturday, making a variety of plays in high-pressure situations to help the Bulldogs clinch an elusive Quad 1 victory with their 89-85 win at Rupp Arena.
The steady decision-making of Ryan Nembhard and the general poise of Nolan Hickman while facing the school and coach for whom he first committed to play were a few of the primary reasons Gonzaga was able to overcome second-half adversity and withstand Kentucky’s numerous scoring runs.
“Those guards got our bigs a lot of those shots and there’s a lot of stress brought their way by the crowd, the toughness and athleticism of the Kentucky players, by the schemes that (Calipari) brought at us,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “But those guards really showed a lot of poise tonight.”
Nembhard and Hickman, who each helped Gonzaga in different ways, lead things off in our day-after rewind.
Icing on the cake
For approximately five months, Hickman was part of Calipari’s plans at Kentucky, signing with the Wildcats on Nov. 11, 2020, as part of a recruiting class that also included current NBA players Shaedon Sharpe and TyTy Washington.
Hickman never showed up in Lexington, reopening his recruitment when assistant Tony Barbee left Calipari’s staff and ultimately signing a letter of intent with Gonzaga. That wasn’t lost on the crowd of 20,000 on Saturday.
Kentucky fans greeted every member of Gonzaga’s starting five with boos, but those seemed to grow a touch louder when Hickman was announced as the last member of the Bulldogs’ lineup.
The junior guard scored Gonzaga’s first points on a midrange jumper and had 12 points inside the first eight minutes, helping the Bulldogs build their early cushion.
Hickman’s scoring slowed in the second half as the Zags started to focus on getting the ball inside to forwards Graham Ike, Anton Watson and Braden Huff, but the former UK signee still finished with 17 points on 6 of 14 from the field, 1 of 5 from the 3-point line and 4 of 4 from the free -throw line while pulling down five rebounds.
“Great atmosphere, man. Great atmosphere,” Hickman said. “That’s what college hoops is all about, man. Just coming and doing what we do at different arenas, different atmospheres and it was right up there with the Kennel. It was amazing, I love a crowd like that. It was cool, great experience.”
A large contingent of Kentucky reporters sat in on Gonzaga’s postgame press conference, which included Few, Hickman and Ike. Not surprisingly, many of the questions from local writers and television reporters were directed at Hickman, who was asked if he could’ve scripted Saturday’s game any better.
“Not at all,” he said. “Like I said, it’s just how basketball goes. God putting me in the right position to play the game that I love and this is how it came to be, so all glory to him.”
Hickman scored Gonzaga’s first points and went to the free -throw line with one second remaining to score the final points on Saturday.
Point guard? Floor general? How about game manager?
Nembhard’s probably accustomed to at least two of those titles, but teammate Ben Gregg felt the third was appropriate after watching the junior transfer carve up Kentucky’s defense and deliver nine more assists to help Gonzaga reach its second-highest point total in a road game this season.
As the GU teammates were walking off the floor together, a postgame video posted to the school’s social media pages captured Gregg pointing at Nembhard and stating to the cameraman, “Hey, Brock Purdy right here. Game manager.”
Gregg, of course, was referring to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who’s earned the “game manager” moniker this NFL season distributing to the team’s talented cast of skill position players.
Nembhard’s weapons weren’t receivers, running backs or tight ends, but rather of a trio of gifted forwards. Ike, Huff and Watson accounted for 52 Gonzaga points on Saturday, often scoring on lobs or interior passes thrown by Nembhard.
“Well, first half I felt like and second half our bigs were just eating them up down there,” Nembhard said. “They were cooking them, they were a little too strong for them. Then second half I feel like we went to a lot of middle ball screens and they were just having trouble with that high tag, so we were able to hit Graham and B-Huff on rolls.”
The Zags pounded the Wildcats with that concept and 10 of their 13 possessions from the 9-minute, 33-second mark to the 2:31 mark in the second half either resulted in a made field goal or free throws.
“Obviously when you have Ryan Nembhard,” Few said, “he makes the right read on those, which is just being a basketball player.”
Upon further review
Kentucky squandered a chance to send the game to overtime when Reed Sheppard underthrew a 20-foot lob to Adou Thiero, instead watching his pass fall into Gregg’s outstretched right hand.
Calipari later confirmed that was indeed Kentucky’s first option coming out of a timeout with 13 seconds remaining and Gonzaga up 86-84.
The second read on the play?
“The plan was Antonio (Reeves), if the lob wasn’t there and it obviously wasn’t, was to go to the top of the key,” Calipari said. “But that didn’t lose us the game. The 18 offensive rebounds, 50 points in the paint. We thought we could guard them one on one. We probably needed to trap more, but then you’re freeing up some other guys.”
Thiero, an athletic 6-foot-8 wing, said he was confident he would’ve completed the play had Sheppard’s lob cleared Gregg.
“If Reed threw it high, it definitely would’ve got through,” Thiero said. “When the ball was in the air and I was in the air, I was looking down on the guy and I saw my head was where his arm was so if Reed threw it a little higher, we would’ve connected, but I think it happened throughout the game, that’s where we lost.”
Inside Gonzaga’s huddle, the Bulldogs were anticipating one of three plays Few thought Calipari might run coming out of the timeout. Leading by two points, Gonzaga’s top priority was not allowing Kentucky, the NCAA’s leader in 3-point percentage, to get off a quality look from behind the arc.
“That’s a great play, I need to have that in the back of my head there,” Few said of the lob. “Ben just made an incredible individual play there. He did a good job making a read, making a basketball play and he jumped up and saved us.”