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John Calipari reacts to close win over Georgia, calls Shai Alexander UK’s best player

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t UK’s highest-ranked recruit in 2017, but he’s slowly becoming the best player from it.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Kentucky
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 45 points over his last two games, while committing only two turnovers.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats overcame shooting colder than the current temperatures outside in the Bluegrass, defeating the Georgia Bulldogs 66-61 on Sunday evening.

The Wildcats followed up their victory over Louisville by opening Southeastern Conference play only forty-eight hours later, by playing one of their worst offensive games of the season.

However, they got twenty-one big points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, hitting twelve of thirteen attempts from the free-throw line, and a very energetic effort off the bench from Wenyen Gabriel, who snatched 10 rebounds.

UK trailed much of the game as Georgia got seemingly whatever they wanted inside the paint, and the Wildcats also had to deal with some questionable calls from the referees throughout the game.

The starting front-court of Nick Richards, PJ Washington, and Kevin Knox were all in foul trouble for the majority of the first half, and Richards only saw three minutes of playing time due to a lack of effort that John Calipari refused to put up with.

You can read Calipari’s post-game comments below, courtesy of UK Athletics.


JOHN CALIPARI: Normally I like long guards. Tyler Ulis was different and then got me to say, if a kid can really play basketball, like Quade (Green), I'm good. But, he's really got to be able to play. Bigger guards just create havoc for you. They can score on your bigs, and like I said after, he's our best player (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). I said the greatest thing about him, he's coming off the bench and not saying anything. Don't worry about his shots or anything, he's just playing. Smiles the whole game. Got some guys with the weight of the world on their shoulders. (It's) got to stop.

That was as selfish as any of my teams have played in a while in that first half. I got to say this and you guys know Mark (Fox) and I are friends, but this is the third game we were very lucky. He came in with an unbelievable game plan, had his team ready to beat us. Most teams are intimidated by this building, Mark's teams are not. They're not intimidated by this building. That's because of him.

Again, until I watch the tape I don't even know how we won this game. We shot 20 percent in the half. We didn't show them any video. I said if you don't pass the ball to each other we're not winning anyway. Love the fact that Hami (Hamidou Diallo) rebounded the ball. We got to get Nick (Richards) back. Nick struggled and fouled and they were both fouls. You fouled.

So then Sacha (Killeya-Jones) is doing better, but he didn't come up with that ball late. Air ball and he's standing there looking at it go over his head. I can't leave you in the game them. We have to have that ball. I don't care what you say, you can speak another language, I'm not listening. You have to get that ball. But, he's getting so much better and playing so much better.

P.J. (Washington) was good after having that foul trouble. One (foul) on the sideline, a guard, why would you do that? Why body him? The other was kind of iffy, but the first one was a foul. So now you have two and I'm not going to lose the game in the first half. You get two (fouls), I'm not playing you unless the game's getting away. Then I'll play you. If the game's not getting away and it's close, you're not playing with two fouls, you get three and then we lose it in the first half? No. No, we'll try to win it down the stretch.

So Quade, again, played good today and the only reason I didn't play him late, was defense because we were going to switch pick-and-rolls. Shai could guard the guy and-- I didn't think he could guard him. But how about how he picked up and he showed he could play like Tyler Ulis? Did you see him pick up and active and move his feet? That's really hard. It's hard to do that. It's easy to just back away. Now that he's proven he can do it, that's who he's going to have to be.

Q. Speaking of down the stretch, in a possession-by-possession game, how did you think your team executed down the stretch?

JOHN CALIPARI: Good. I thought they did good. We made the plays we had to make. Missed some free throws. Missed -- but again, well, you missed free throws, wrong guys at the line. If Quade or Shai is at the line, we're making eight out of nine. We got some other guys who are going to have to prove late in the game that we can go at them. See if you can't make free throws, we cannot go at you because they're going to foul you and then by you missing two it's the most disappointing, depressing, it just takes the energy out of you.

I was putting Quade in late just so he would get fouled. He went it in and made those. The zone helped us again today. I overruled and won the last play to go zone out of that have timeout. Everybody's saying go man. I said no, we're playing zone. So I can't remember if it helped us or if we got the ball or not, I can't remember. I think we got it and then missed free throws.

Q. Is there something in particular here lately, that is -- he's (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) played well all season, but that has unleashed Shai a little bit?

JOHN CALIPARI: He smiles. I'm just going to tell you, I asked Sam Cassell one time, because Sam Cassell was the best late-game player I've ever coached. Late in the game, he would make the free throws, make the right -- he never turned it over. He would make a shot or he would spoon feed somebody. And I said to him, 'so, why late are you a guy that's going to make the shot or free throws?' And he said, because I'm not afraid to miss them. See when you think every basket, miss or make, identifies who you are, it's hard to play. Because every shot is like oh, man, I can't play, I can't play, I can't play, I can't play. You can't be that. Shai's just playing. Quade just plays that way too, to be honest with you. We just, he has some habits he's got to -- we're trying to create different habits at times. Especially defensively. Just stay in front of people. But, he kind of plays that way too.

Q. Are you concerned with (Kevin) Knox at all? He seems to be really in a funk here lately.

JOHN CALIPARI: He and Nick too. But you're talking about Kevin Knox, the youngest freshman in the country, and again, as a coach I always want to evaluate them when things are not going great. How are you now? How are you in practice? Are you alibiing? Are you looking for excuses or are you coming to work? Because there's only one way to break out. You can't talk your way out, you can't listen to -- well, he takes you out every time you make a mistake and everybody watches and says, he shoots it whenever he wants, so that's not true. So now it becomes, OK, how do I break this? You get in there and work. This kid is a hard worker, he's a great kid. This is all new to him, the game got physical, it's all new to him. So, I'm not going to leave him in there to fail, but I kept putting him in, putting him in and for us to be any good, Kevin's got to be that guy. I'm calling his number a lot, still calling his number, even if he is not playing great, because I know he has to play for us to win.

Q. Next week will be about a year since Hamidou came. Where is his game at now? You mentioned rebounding.

JOHN CALIPARI: Way better. He's not even the same player. But he's got a ways to go. Like grinding it on defense, he takes chances instead of grinding it, because it's like, I'll just try to steal this versus really lock in and play. Because he's not used to doing it. Shot selection. When you have a green light your shot selection has to be better. I'm letting him go, but you can't take bad shots. That's not fair to your teammates, because they don't have the green light that you have. So he's learning that. Did you see that drive to the basket? The post up and then the drive to the basket? Why not do that more? Why do a do do-do and a fade away? Well, it looks better. What? What are you talking about? Just do it. You're so athletic and long and good with the ball, why wouldn't you just go?

So, he's learning all that stuff. But, he's trying, he's a great kid. Look, these are a bunch of great kids, but they -- somebody said, after the Louisville game, do you think they will revert? And I said, I don't know. I hope not. And guess what? We reverted. But, in the end we defended, we tried, we fought, we pressured, we scrambled, we out-rebounded a big team that's a good rebounding team.

Georgia's going to do fine. Mark's an unbelievable coach. I'm happy we're not playing them again unless it's postseason. We're done. Because every time we play them it is just like this. If you remember the game down at Georgia, they're up, we're up, they're up, we're up, they're up, we're up, we're up, they're up, they're up, they're up, they're up, we're up and we make it down the stretch, we make a play. And then here they had us down 12-0 last year. Do you remember? It's 29-29 at halftime. And we were lucky to win that game. And then, we were just talking, this is our first league game. Now, if you look back, you remember Mississippi? Like double overtime? Was that with the '14-'15 team? The team that went 38-0? I mean, it's league. It's hard. It's hard. But it's a 'W' and I told them to enjoy it.

Q. What did you think about Wenyen's (Gabriel) energy on the glass and defensively and --

JOHN CALIPARI: He was good. The only thing is, you guys understand what I'm trying to get him to do when he catches the ball. What?

Q. Shoot it.

JOHN CALIPARI: Or pass it. Please, don't try this other stuff. Mark it down, if you're a guy keeping stats, when he passes up a shot and ball fakes and start to run, go, turnover. You can do it. I'm allowing you. And he's playing for a coach that's saying to him, if you are open, shoot it every single time. Play like Derek Willis played. Shoot the ball. And you know what? Here's a kid that fights and tries and knows. I said, why did you do it? I don't know. Why did you do it? Just shoot the ball. But he's another great kid. I'm really happy with he and Sacha because they're getting better.

Q. You said that that first half was as selfish as one of your teams has played in a while. Why do you think that was, especially as good as you played two nights ago?

JOHN CALIPARI: I don't know, every guy was trying to score. You know what a ball stopper is when you're on offense? The ball, beep, beep, and that guy get it and he goes like that and tries that -- well we had three ball stoppers. It was going to a guy and he held it. Three guys guarding him, I'm shooting it anyway. How about the easy pass up the court to the guy? Nah, I'm going to wait. Then our point guard was dribbling the length of the floor and trying to shoot it. He did. Guys ahead, he just dribbled the length of the court and he got fouled, so he thought he was good. Wait a minute. Every guy on the team and no one's passing because we're playing this way. So we'll probably Tuesday -- they're going to be off tomorrow -- but Tuesday we're going to do 10 passes, you must pass, you cannot dribble. You must get open and pass the ball. They're going to think it's boring. This is boring. But we have to pass to each other, we have to create shots for each other. We're good enough to do that. Every team, how are they starting to play us now because you hear me drive the ball, drive the ball there. So you drive it, for what reason? To run three people over and the officials and two cheerleaders? No, you drive the ball to pass it. What? No, you drive the ball and they collapse. Well I want to try to shoot this. Well you got two cheerleaders and a referee and three players guarding you. I know, but I can get this off. So, again, it's the same thing, just an easy pass, make each other better. Hopefully we'll learn from this and, but we did what we had to down the stretch to win, we made the plays we had to make. Wenyen had a big three, Shai had a big three, we offensive rebounded three balls down the stretch and made the plays we had to make.

Q. Opponents the last two games are 5-for-46 from 3-point range. Is that fools gold? Have you changed something defensively or what?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, again, we watched the UCLA tape. The 12 threes that they shot, we were nowhere in sight. All 12. It was H-O-R-S-E. Now you see us running at people. You see us running through. We're desperate to get to the guy versus, wow, he got that shot. We're now in a desperate mode. We're practicing that way. The guys are getting to three-point shooters. Now there were some threes that were open today that they missed, but there were a bunch that were covered. So we're getting better with that, but you're seeing teams, when a team makes 12, 15 threes against you, you're probably going to lose.