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John Calipari recaps comeback win over Vanderbilt; “They stuck together”

Being battle-tested is a good thing, I guess?

Arkansas v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When a 19-point deficit felt like 50, the Kentucky Wildcats kept fighting and defeated Vanderbilt at home on Senior Night, 73-67.

After Derek Willis recovered from his pregame marriage proposal, he had 3 huge blocks and 8 big rebounds to help spark the comeback. He was joined in the effort by fellow senior Dominique Hawkins who was all over the floor diving for loose balls and tearing rebounds away from giants.

This was the biggest comeback win for Kentucky since John Calipari arrived, and with the victory the Wildcats clinched at least a share of the regular season SEC Championship and the #1 seed in the conference tournament next week.

Cal was pleased with his team’s effort and fight, and he was very complementary of the Commodores. He spoke about senior night, Willis’ proposal, and the team’s injuries.

See below for a full transcript of his post-game press conference, courtesy of UK Athletics.

Opening Statement

“We weren't desperate enough to start the game, and even if we were desperate enough, part of it may have been we were going to press, but we weren't going to be as aggressive. So that could come back to me. But I keep telling them, I'm not responsible for your effort, your energy, your fight, you are.Two things happened in the game: They stuck together, no one broke off. We had one play, Malik Monk on the far corner took a shot he didn't need to take. Every other shot was what we were looking for. That's how you've got to play basketball in March. You've got to fight and stick together. You can't fight and then everybody go do their own thing. You can't win a basketball game.We played a team, that, again, is playing out of their minds right now. That's an NCAA tournament team. I don't care what you say. They've got the number one schedule in the country. The number one schedule in the country. They've got us and they've got another game with Florida, and that will be the number one schedule. They were number two before today. I imagine they'll be number one now.They shoot the ball. They run their stuff. We were trying to get into their clock by pressing traffic scramble so they didn't have 30 seconds to move the ball around. And that's what, you know, after watching the game I said we're not going to win this game unless we get into the clock. And I thought the guys performed.

Q. Did you know about Derek's pre-game engagement? Did you coach him up on that

COACH CALIPARI: No, but I got emotional. I looked at that and it's like one of your sons is getting married. And I started getting teared up and I talked to myself a little bit. But he told the team before he was going. They gave him a standing-O and hugged him in the locker room.How about the three he made? Whatever we're going to call this, not his wedding day, his proposal day. Do you have a proposal day? Do you have that? I've never heard of that? Engagement day, and he makes that three. That was a big play and that's after missing a couple and missing free throws, but he made that three. That three was a big play.Dom was great today. Mychal was good today. I went with Isaiah because I figured he'd fight and he'd get that big stick back late. And I trust him taking the ball out to throw it to the right man to get the timeout if he needs it.

Q. How well is Malik getting it in terms of shots not going, driving, getting there.

COACH CALIPARI: Getting better. You're all seeing it. He's maturing right before our eyes. He had one bad play, where he took it down to the corner, and shot a foot kicker, which he never makes. Other than that, and, again, that play is set up for him to try to do that, and then throw it back if he doesn't have a shot and get it back anyway. All we're saying to him is be patient. If you don't have it right away, we're coming back at you.

Q. What happened to Isaiah's hand?

COACH CALIPARI: I don't know. I didn't even ask him to be honest, it was not his shooting hand, so I wasn't worried about it.

Q. Was Fox 100% tonight?

COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, but he struggled. He just practiced yesterday for the first time in whatever, five, six days. But, you know, in the end he did it. In the end, he played. He played awful up until then. He had five turnovers. We only had 11, and he had five of them. Missed lay-ups, but in the end of the game, he fought, and he stuck with his teammates and he did it, he played well.

Q. I don't know if you saw the play where Malik was diving for a loose ball on the other end, and it looked like he had to dive over a couple guys almost vertical. Is that the kind of effort you're talking about with him?

COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, but we didn't start the game that way I mean, if you're going to win in March, that's what you have to play like, 40 minutes. What you saw in the second half. That's who you've got to be, or you're not winning. I told him that after. How about Dom and the way he played. There was a time when he tipped it and we got the game back in hand.How about let me say this, how about Vandy never gave up. How about that three went, and you thought the game was over, okay, we won. Oh, oh, you miss a couple free throws, you give up a three, and now it's not over, and they kept playing. My hat's I've to them and what they've been able to do and how they're playing right now.

Q. Any comments on your technical foul? It kind of turned the game around?

COACH CALIPARI: That was the intent of it. I thought he got smacked in the face. That's why I did it. You know, you've got to protect your guys. If their offensive push offs and they're -- you know, you've got to stand up for your guys at times. I thought he got hit in the head, that's why I said go look at it on the monitor.

Q. You mentioned the bucket that Willis had that was big, but I think that might have been his only one.

COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, I thought he had eight rebounds.

Q. Is that kind of a sign of his growth too?

COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, yeah. I got to speak to each of the seniors by themselves before the game. I called them in the office here and, you know, it's just when I think back on how far Derek Willis has come and his comment to me is you helped me become a man.Dom and I sat there and smiled, laughed and talked about his times here. You know, you just let him know, you're part of this family. You're part of my family. We're always going to be here for you. What you've done for this program and what you've done for all of us, you know, is so appreciative.And I said, you know, you were two guys that this was your dream, your home state school to play here. I talked to Mychal, and I just said, you're so much better. And as a junior college player, I said, how hard was first year? He said, oh, my gosh, Coach. You think you're going to be able to walk right in. It's just not the same. Now the way he's playing, and I even apologized after. I said the way the game went, Mychal, I just stuck with those guys, because it wasn't about offense. It was going to be about fight. And he'll fight, but Dom has an advantage in that.

Q. Talk about the difference between playing them back in Nashville and playing them today, and how much better or different they look?

COACH CALIPARI: I think both teams are better. They're better and we're better. They played us different. They played all 45 possessions of zone up there and they played all man here.

Q. I asked Bryce about this being a bottom-line business with the committee getting a bid. How much credit do you think a team ought to get coming in here, this atmosphere and playing you guys down to the second?COACH CALIPARI: It matters. And let me tell you where it matters, it matters on their strength of schedule. When you chose to play the toughest schedule in the country and you're in our league, and we've got, I'm guessing, six teams between other, 48, 47, and 60. We've got like six or seven teams, and you're in the top half of that league, you deserve it.Now, they've got to finish. They've got Florida at home, another tough game. They've got the tournament. They've got chances. But the committee all wants us to play good schedules. Well, they played the best.

Q. I'm curious. Is the emotion for you the same having guys go through the program four years as it is to be in the green room at the NBA draft and all that?

COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, it is. And like I said, my emotion in the office for these three, especially the two that have been here for four years, I just said to all of them, I hope you're taking as much as you've given us from here. That what you learned and what you're taking, the friendships, the commitments, the habits you've developed that you're taking more than you've given us because they've given us a ton.

Q. Again, before the game, did you kind of like the spontaneous way, when your three seniors lined up, I think the picture or whoever, that everybody on the team just ran over there and jumped in? Do you like seeing things like that?

COACH CALIPARI: The guys were great prior to the game and even after. You know, we've got a good group of kids, they're just so young. Teaching them to fight and be together for 40 minutes and be totally committed and connected and locked in for 40, it's just hard. It's hard.What I've been doing is if a guy is not locked in and he's the guy breaking down, you've got to come out now. I don't care who you are. You can't be in there. And we had a couple of those again today. It's just, you know, we've got a couple. We've got this week and we've got next week, but that's it. Then it's, okay, it's who we are.

Q. What did you see out of Bam Adebayo switching out on the guards, guarding on the perimeter?

COACH CALIPARI: That's what I said. He can guard from five positions. He's 8 for 10 from the free-throw line. If I played him out, he could shoot more balls. I'm the one making him play next to the basket. You know, each rebounds, physically fights, he's getting in great condition.He's still not where he needs to be, but he's getting better that way, and he guards five positions. Who doesn't want a guy like that? I mean, he could step out and shoot three.