It’s been a rough December for the Kentucky Wildcats. Between losing a heart-breaker in overtime against Seton Hall and saying goodbye to Quade Green on Wednesday, the Cats were looking for some good vibes to close out the 2018 home schedule in Rupp Arena. Once again, Keldon Johnson answered the call as the 6-foot-6 freshman scored 15 first half points, including five three-pointers, to lead the Cats to a 88-61 win over Utah.
Johnson finished with 24 points, his third 20-point game of his career, as the Cats turned in one of its best shooting performances of the season going 12-of-21 from behind the three-point arc (57.1%). Tyler Herro had 17 points, while Reid Travis and Immanuel Quickly added 16 and 12, respectively.
The Cats struggled early against Utah’s zone defense and quickly fell behind 10-2 at the 16:48 mark. With the game tied at 14-14, Johnson went to work, hitting a three pointer to push the Cats ahead 17-14 with 12:12 left in the half. Johnson then took over, hitting four more treys over the final four minutes, the last coming at the 8:24 mark, as Kentucky moved ahead 28-19. Herro closed the half with a deep three pointer from the left corner as time expired to give the Cats a 41-27 lead.
The highlight of the second half was back-to-back three pointers by freshman Jemarl Baker, making only his second appearance, after redshirting during the 2017-18 season with a knee injury. The Cats will now get ready to face North Carolina on December 22nd at Chicago’s United Center.
After the game, head coach John Calipari and select players met with the media. Here is a recap of everything they said, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Q. How much of tonight was shots were simply falling or your guys doing something markedly better to create a better shot?
COACH CALIPARI: There’s both, but Jimmy (Dykes) said on the TV after, “They were clean passes.” Like clean catches and clean shots, which means we had willing passers. Not, “I’m going to try to get a shot or make a play and then I’ll throw you the ball.” Not, “When I catch it, I’ll then recognize what’s there. When I catch it, I’m going to see who is open and move it to the open men.
And second thing is our spacing was much better, and third thing is they played mostly zone, so you had a chance to get more.
Look, I’ve been telling them I want to shoot between 20 and 23 threes a game. If we shoot 30, we will lose the game. Because historically, if you go back over my career of 30-some years, if we shoot 30, my team loses.
We want to get to the foul line, we want two-point baskets and we want to offensive rebound. Hard to offensive rebound, miss threes, because they are bouncing everywhere. But you know, we shot the ball pretty well today.
Q. After the Bahamas, you said that you recognized that you had a bunch of guys that could play but the question that remained is who is the catalyst and who is going to be the guy. Does Keldon look like he’s becoming that?
COACH CALIPARI: I’ve thought, but his focus, he loses focus sometimes, and when he loses focus, whether it be defensively or offensively, it really hurts us.
So, his whole thing is: You know, you can’t just play hard in spurts and then stay in the game. You can play hard in spurts and sub yourself but he’s learning. He’s fine. I was -- Tyler Herro made some shots today and we walked off the court at halftime and I said, “Do you know why you made that? Because you didn’t have time to think about it. You just caught it and shot it, and you trusted yourself. You trusted all your hard work.”
And for everybody, I kind of forgot those last four or five minutes that I had Jemarl because I was trying a rotation.
Again you have to understand, Jemarl (Baker) has practiced about two, two and a half weeks with us, in the last two years. But, he’s practiced really well the last couple weeks, and what I’ve told him is: You’re in the game to score baskets, how about that, and he went in the game and he scored baskets and our fans went crazy and I’m happy for him. I would have put him in earlier except I forgot he was on the bench. I did.
Q. You had 34 points today created off of turnovers. The trademark of your defenses since you’ve been here, your team since you’ve been here has been defense. Talk about how much stronger your defense was today.
COACH CALIPARI: Well, you know, we had active hands. We were collapsing on drives. We were anticipating better. You know, the whole thing defensively, if you want to be -- you’ve got to be able to stop the drive so that you don’t have to scramble all over the place and get full rotations, which usually gets you beat.
And the second thing is, you’ve got to be an anticipating kind of team where just like a pass coming to you, you’re looking like who is open. Before you catch it, you know what’s going on.
Defensively is no different. You’re on the weak side; where is he trying to pass that ball, and I’m moving in that direction. We’ve got some guys doing it pretty well. I was happy with Immanuel Quickley today. Immanuel’s got to make some shots, and he did today. And Ashton (Hagans) did what he was supposed to, got in that lane, got seven assists. We’re kind of defining the roles a little bit better.
Q. Along those lines, how do you think that Immanuel and Ashton are coming along when it comes to running the offense?
COACH CALIPARI: Getting better, and I’ve just got to do -- look, this thing is a lot of tape work. This thing is a lot of individual time. This is a lot of holding them accountable because they are typical freshmen.
Immanuel, I put on the board today, do not try to be perfect, just play ball. He tries to be perfect which puts him on his heels and I keep telling him: You can’t -- you’re not going to be perfect. You just try to make less mistakes than the other team. You try to miss less shots on the other team but you’re not going to be perfect.
Again, I thought we had a couple guys today that we just need more from them, energy, intensity, enthusiasm. We should demand that. No need to make every shot. Doesn’t mean you’re not turning it over.
But we should have every guy fighting for every ball in every possession. We’re just not there yet, but the thing that I did for the last three days, literally, worked on offense. And then I said to them: Please, don’t tell me you’re going to let go of the rope defensively now, because we -- the only defense we worked on was guarding our stuff. I didn’t think this team would play that much zone, but thank goodness we did prepare some things for it.
But you know, it’s a hard game to play and I told Larry (Krystkowiak) that, you know, they are going to be fine and -- but Utah, they didn’t shoot the ball as well as they have shot it today. Like they missed some open threes. But when we’re making threes like that, it’s a hard deal.
Q. When you look at Nick (Richards) and EJ (Montgomery), I think they had 29 minutes and two points and six rebounds between them. Talk about what they are giving you or not giving you.
COACH CALIPARI: You’re saying Nick and EJ? I want to go -- I want to play EJ and go to a bigger lineup, so we’re doing some things to mess around with a bigger lineup and I have Nick in that three-man rotation. I thought he did some good things. I mean, you know, he got scored on where I didn’t think he should have, but I think he gets straight-legged and that happens.
But Nick, I’m telling you, we need Nick so that people don’t think they can just drive in there and score. Now you’ve got a team that’s going to shoot more jumpers than driving layups.
Q. The couple of shot clock violations showed, the defensive free throw --
COACH CALIPARI: I think a lot of teams are going to try because we are so young and inexperienced. They are going to try to hold the ball and see who breaks down and with nine, eight, seven seconds on the shot clock to beat somebody because someone stops playing. That’s the history of playing young people, and we didn’t do it today. We just didn’t break down.
Q. Have you had other players who felt that need to be perfect out there? I think that would be detrimental. How do you push a player past that?
COACH CALIPARI: Derrick Rose would get so mad at himself, but Immanuel gets tentative, so it’s different. Like if you want to get mad at yourself, I can deal with that. That means I don’t have to get mad at you. And then I have to more pick you up and say, “Stop, you’re fine. But you can’t get tentative.”
You’ve got to, you know -- and again, we’re getting him to see -- look, a high school player will catch a ball and if the coach says, “Oh,” and you look at him, and he says, “Tell me where all the players are.”
He’ll say, “What players?”
”Where are they standing?” He’ll have no idea.
But if you ask that to Steve Nash, he would turn and say: “My center’s there, my guard’s on the weak side, my 3-man is there and my 4-man is the high post.” Seeing the court.
So as he begins to do that, he will process less and react more and be able to let loose a little bit. So we’re just working every day, and it’s the last three days, to make us willing passers. You have to see it to be willing, and the second thing is, they are not selfish. They are just used to when they get the ball, I make a play.
Well, think about having five guys think that: “So when I get it, I make a play.” Well, you get no ball movement. You have no willing passers. That’s where we’ve been and we’re moving by it.
I thought we did some great stuff defensively until the start of the second half. We gave them some baskets, and then I went to the dreaded zone. How did that work? All you people saying, “Why doesn’t he play zone,” how did you like that? Play the 1-3-1 coach. “Coach Hall keeps tell you, play the 1-3-1. We need you to take seniors.” Okay.
Q. Coach Pitino Tweeted that he appreciated you inviting him to come. What was that conversation, and why didn’t he come?
COACH CALIPARI: He was with family and he had things going on. But you know, I just said, “Look, you need to get up here.” They will be respectful here, and you know, what that program did to change this back, you know, I mean, we should recognize it. They may be mad he went to coach at Louisville. So what? When he was here and when we needed this program on a different track, he put it, and that group -- and I thanked that group last night: “You guys got this thing back going, you guys did.”
You know, I just, like I said, I’d like him to come back and let him -- you know, one of the happiest things for me is when I see how Coach Hall is treated here. He’s treated like royalty. I love it when he goes out on the court. I love to see him in practice and I love how our fans treat him.
My guess is, back in the day, they probably weren’t as friendly, okay. But now they look at it and say, you know what, who would have followed Adolph Rupp? Who is stupid enough to do that? He was. He went to Final Fours, won national titles. Think about it.
And now, what Rick did, you know, like I said, he deserves to be able to, you know, get the respect from what he did here, and I think our fans would be great. You know, he may not think that, but I’m convinced that if he came back, that the fans would be great to him.
#14, Tyler Herro, Fr., G
On Coach Calipari’s message after his shot to end the first half …
“He said it went in because I didn’t think about it. ‘You caught it and shot it and it and that’s why it went in.’”
On his mindset …
“Just trying to be perfect and make every shot, which isn’t going to happen, but the coaches told us to shoot away. Stop thinking about it, shoot it, and we’ll live with the results.”
On the number of made 3’s today …
“Coach wants us shooting a lot of 3’s. He talked about it a few teams in our league shooting 3’s throughout the game. So, he just emphasized that we need to get up more 3’s to just focus on our space and moving the ball.”
#3, Keldon Johnson, Fr., G
On getting in the zone today shooting the ball …
“Definitely, I’m shooting the ball with confidence. My teammates just kept telling me to keep shooting, don’t think about it, and just let it go. After I hit the first shot, I knew it was going to be a good day.”
On if he woke up thinking today was going to be a good day …
“Definitely, I had some great practices this week. I just felt that it was time to transition all of the hard work that I’ve made in practice.”
On the thought of being the “go-to” guy in crunch time …
“Definitely, I’m not afraid to take a big shot or step up in big moments. If my team ever needs me to get a bucket or make a big stop on defense, I can be that man.”
On the team trying to be more of a “pass first” team …
“I think we all have had our past habits because everyone was the go-to man on their teams. It’s not necessarily them being selfish. It’s just habits that they’ve been used to in high school. We just emphasize in practice on making that pass ahead of time.”
On if he’s comfortable with the offense going through him …
“Definitely, I’m comfortable with the offense going through me. I know every night may not be my night. However, I think that I can make the right play and get my teammates involved.”
#5, Immanuel Quickley, Fr., G
On Jemarl Baker’s 3’s …
“I work out with Jemarl a lot, so I already know what he can do. He’s been going hard in practice and hitting shots as well. He’s a great player and I hope he continues to make shots.”
On the team’s growth …
“I think the team has come a very far way this season. I’m not sure what we held them to tonight, but I think its lower than we have for other teams in the past. We are talking more, the energy is better and overall the positivity is better as well. I think we have come a long way. Coach Cal stays on us a lot about defense. He knows how good we can be, the potential this team has and we’re just working every day on trying to get better.”
On the point guards’ development …
“Ashton Hagans and I are getting a lot more comfortable running the offense. When Ashton is in the game, he finds everybody and he just makes it easier on me. As far as me, I think I’ve always been a confident player. You miss some shots, but you can never get down because of that. So, I’m just looking for my opportunity to be aggressive at all times. A lot of times I’m guarding one of the best perimeter players. So you can’t cheat or take plays off.”