Saturday was something to build on for the Kentucky Wildcats.
The No. 19 Cats played their best basketball of the new season, beating No. 9 North Carolina 80-72 in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
The win was Kentucky’s first win of the season away from Rupp Arena and improved the Cats to 9-2 on the season.
Reid Travis brought exactly what Kentucky was hoping he’d bring as a grad transfer. He was the leader the Cats needed scoring 16 of his 20 points to go with six rebounds and two blocks.
It was also a big day for a trio of freshman. Keldon Johnson dropped a team-high 23 points, Tyler Herro connected on a trio of three-pointers, finishing with 15 points. And perhaps the most impressive performance belonged to Ashton Hagans, who had an incredible eight steals tying Rajon Rondo and Wayne Turner for the UK single-game record.
Kentucky outrebounded the Tar Heels 43-33 on the glass and forced 17 turnovers in a game where their defense finally held their own against a quality opponent.
This win proved John Calipari was right all along. It’s a process, and Kentucky’s improvement is crystal clear.
Here’s what Coach Cal and his players had to say postgame, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson
Q. Can you talk about Ashton’s play tonight?
KELDON JOHNSON: His defensive presence is amazing. You seen it all, he was locking up, making plays, big stops and you could just see it rubbing off on everybody.
TYLER HERRO: I think on defense, really tough to beat, just the way he puts it on every team, he played great tonight and we expect that from him every night.
Q. I know you guys play all around the country and the fans travel. What was it like in this atmosphere?
TYLER HERRO: It was good to see how loud it got. Big Blue Nation are the best fan base in the country. The way they travel with us is amazing. It was good to see how loud they got. It’s always good to have them on our side and they helped us get the W.
KELDON JOHNSON: I would just say the same. Our hat goes off to the fan base that travels with us and support us through ups and downs.
Q. What does it mean to get a win like this? You’ve been waiting for a resumé win like this for a while now.
KELDON JOHNSON: It’s definitely a big win I think, but I mean, it was a great game. I think we came out and was very aggressive and just played all phases like in practice. It’s just a big-time win.
TYLER HERRO: I think it’s big-time just because how hard we’ve been working in practice. I think we’re seeing that payoff game by game. We’re getting better each game.
Defensively we still have to things to improve on but it’s getting better each and every game.
Q. Reid, especially in the first half, seemed to kind of set the tone inside. How much was that a plan going in to try to use him, and what did you think of the bigs passing, he and PJ?
TYLER HERRO: Yeah, I think they did a great job again tonight. They did the same against Utah last weekend. You know, Reid is a veteran to us and we look up to him a lot. When he’s tall like that, you almost have to follow him, the way he passed tonight was amazing. It was good.
KELDON JOHNSON: I agree. I think that he came out ready to play and aggressive, and same with him and PJ, just sharing the ball and being willing passers, and it paid off.
Q. Guys, the pace was pretty phrenetic today. Seems like you guys really love to play in that kind of pace up and down. Is there any way you can kind of convince Coach Cal to play that way a little bit more?
KELDON JOHNSON: I mean, I just think that with him trusting us more and more each and every day, we like to get out and run, and just get each other involved and pass the ball to each other and give great shots. I mean, I just think that obviously executing with that, I think he’ll let us play.
Q. I know it’s December right now but with how the season has sort of unfolded up to tonight’s game, did this feel sort of like a must-win for this group against those guys?
TYLER HERRO: Yeah, just talking before the game at the hotel and stuff, at dinner a couple days before the game, this is like you said, a must-win for us. It’s a resumé win. Like I said before, how hard we’ve been working in practice, today was important to finally see something pay off. It was a big win and we’re excited about it.
Q. At one point I think you had 21 assists in the first 24 made field goals. Just talk about the passing that’s been going on and how much that has changed the traction in the last two games?
KELDON JOHNSON: We definitely just been working on passes. While we’re doing that, you see our assists goes up and everybody’s happy. Everybody’s jumping with joy.
I just think that, I mean, that’s just the main thing is that they are willing passers. That’s what we’ve been focusing on in practice and it’s just paying off.
Q. Is there a pride that you guys are not taking in this to some degree about making that extra pass or making --
TYLER HERRO: Like Keldon said, once you see one guy being a willing passer, it just goes around the whole team and everybody is happy and we’re getting stops on defense.
Q. How did you all bounce back mentally from that loss to Duke to play the way you did against North Carolina?
KELDON JOHNSON: I think that once that game -- once we finished that game, it was over, and we knew that we just had to put it in the back of our minds. That’s just the main thing. We know that we didn’t do what we’re supposed to do that game and we just bounced back and kept going harder and harder in practice each and every day and just put that behind us.
TYLER HERRO: I think it was kind of like a must; we had to put it behind us. How the coaches approached us after the game, we just have to get back to the drawing board and work harder in practice.
Q. You talked about this being kind of a resumé win and a chance for another one next week. I know there’s the holiday break in between but first thoughts on the rivalry game at Louisville next week in?
TYLER HERRO: I heard the atmosphere is crazy in Kentucky, Louisville. One of the fans told us when we got here: You can lose every game just not the Louisville game.
It’s going to be fun. Just going to approach that game like any other game and go out there and compete.
KELDON JOHNSON: I agree. Just go out there and take care of business. I think we’ll come out with the same mindset of just wanting to win. That’s what we do.
Q. Can you guys talk about the lift Nick gave you guys? It seemed like he was a spark there.
KELDON JOHNSON: I definitely agree. He’s definitely a sparkplug. That’s just the Nick that we need every day, and we see that Nick in practice. Just to see him put that for us in the game is just amazing and we’re happy for him.
TYLER HERRO: I think the same way that Ashton can change the game how he did today, and Nick can do the same thing defensively with shots and blocking. He did a great job tonight, and expect that every night.
Q. Tyler, you mentioned a fan approaching you about just making sure you don’t lose to Louisville. How much, if at all, do you guys hear the fan stuff, when people start to question, you know, whether this team is going to be what it was supposed to be.
TYLER HERRO: The coaching staff does a good job of telling us to stay off social media in regards to reading what people say. You know, we just work hard in practice every day. We got our team that we stick to and we stick to each other and we work hard to get better every day in practice.
Q. Coach, give us some opening thoughts on today’s game.
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: We have two really good practices and all I’m on them about is player-driven. I want this to be a player driven-team. I don’t want it to be a coach-driven team. I shouldn’t hear myself or any other coaches getting on guys to play hard, and that’s all we’ve been talking about. I want this to be a player-driven team.
I’m trying to keep some of this stuff simple so they can play, and we shot way more threes than we wanted to, but North Carolina plays in a way that kind of forces you to shoot threes.
So I don’t know the stats. I haven’t seen -- I can’t read -- I don’t even know what that is, that stat sheet, I couldn’t even read it. Could you guys read it? No. Some of you couldn’t, right. Did we win? That’s -- okay.
Q. Reid Travis, what made him such an attractive prospect for you?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Well, first team all Pac-10 and he was like 18-10, and he said, I’d like to come with you. I says, come on, we’ll figure this out.
If you came in our practice, he is so focused and works so hard. Gives everything he can. I had a coach walk in the other day and say, “He never takes his eyes off of you when you’re coaching.” Now, we’ve got a lot of freshmen that do take their eyes off me, and sometimes turn their ears off to me, but he has been a beast that we usually don’t have.
Q. Is he the leader of the team or is it a guy maybe like PJ who has been around?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: It’s still developing, and he’s not the kind that would take over but when he speaks, they listen. Guy is in the gym all the time. He’s either in getting treatments -- this kid, he’s wired and treatment and really a wonderful kid. I say kid. I call him kid and he laughs at me. I said, “When is the last time you’ve been called kid”?
He said, “About eight years ago.”
Q. In the hallway before the game, Ashton was walking up and down saying, “The aggressor wins.” Looked like he had that mentality. Is he becoming the guy you thought he would be?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, he is -- I’m putting the ball in his hands and he’s making the right plays, and it was a small tweak that we made about a week ago and when I watched it, I said, “Okay, we got this now.” And he’s making the game easy for everybody.
Now, he did jog it up a little bit today when I got on him but the reality of it is it’s kind of like a pressing team. You press a pressing team and if a team is a speed team, you go right back at him with speed which is what we’re trying to do today.
But he’s really, you know, he’s making strides.
Q. About being willing passers, I wonder if Reid and PJ really set a tone, post to post and big to big, and what did you think of the passing overall?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Pretty good. We still have a ways to go, though. I’ll watch it on tape. I thought there were four or five that we held on to too long that we tried to do the harder thing versus just give the ball to the open man, but we’re getting better.
Look, I keep saying and I told them for two days: We’re not the same team we were two weeks ago. It’s not even close. And hopefully two weeks from now, we’re not going to be the same team we are today. And that’s the process of every day, let’s try to get better. You have games that are kind of tests that show you. We lost to Seton Hall but we got better between the week before Seton Hall and Seton Hall. He we just lose a buzzer beater.
But that’s all I’m trying to do with this team. If they will become a defensive-rebounding-minded team, that’s where they are about, I think our offense good enough, I really do.
But we were just so bad defensively those first two, three weeks, and that’s on me. I passed some stuff that I thought they would know, and it was wrong and I had to go back. But like I said, this is a good win, but it’s one game. Now we’ve got another tough one coming up.
Q. I know it’s only December, but how big was this win? I think for your kids and maybe their psyches, going into the Louisville game?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t think going into the Louisville game. It’s just that we -- it’s amazing, because we had the ball up three with 1:30 to go in New York and somehow gave that game away. If we had won that game, we wouldn’t have all this craziness, but this is Kentucky. Good luck.
And then if you talk about winning and learning, who doesn’t care about winning. Do you ever watch me coach and say that I don’t care about winning? So this stuff, for them, keeping the clutter away from them, is part of what we have to do.
We have the greatest fans in the country, we do. And they also want to win every game by 25 and if you lose the game, you have the outliers that try to create issues. None of us listen to them, but every year that I’ve coached -- last year, we lost four in a row. The year we went to the Final Four, we lost three of our last four. This is hard. Teams are really good. They are well coached and they are inexperienced with a grad transfer.
Q. With Tyler being from driving distance, did you get a sense this was going to mean more to him, this game?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I’ll give you a follow-up. I didn’t listen to what you said. Say it again.
Q. With him being from Milwaukee, driving distance, did you sense that this game was going to mean more to him?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I didn’t think about it. I was just trying to get these guys in the right frame of mind to play a game like this, to battle on every possession, and he still has a ways to go. I mean, but he has gotten so much better. Defensively, he’s not even the same guy. He’s way better. Offensively, he’s still learning. You know, some of the passes and some of the stuff he’s just got to learn and the only way you learn is to be in games and make some mistakes and learn from them and accept where you have to take things.
I was really pleased. He made some shots and PJ did a little bit of everything today, which is what we wanted. He scored, rebounded, he had assists, but that’s who he should be and I told him, first half, I took him out, I didn’t think he was playing hard enough, you’re either going to compete second half I thought he competed the entire time
What is your follow-up?
Q. You actually already answered it.
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I usually do that.
For everybody, have a great Christmas, you hope you spends it with family and I tell all the people out there, if you get a chance to bring somebody into your home for Christmas, a neighbor or somebody that’s out there, maybe think about doing it. Thanks.