On a night when the 1978 National Championship team took center stage, it was UK’s hot perimeter shooting that stole the show as the Cats beat Missouri 88-66 to earn its 20th win of the season. UK is now 20-9, 9-7 in the SEC with two games left in the regular season.
UK has struggled from the three-point line all year, but UK’s guards - Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each hit two treys in the first half to spark a much improved offense. Even Brad Calipari got into the act as he nailed a three pointer to end the game as the Cats finished 10-for-16 from behind the arc.
Kevin Knox led the Cats in scoring with 21 points, followed by Gilgeous-Alexander with 15. Green and PJ Washington added 12 each, while Jarred Vanderbilt controlled the paint and had his first double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds. Diallo also had 11 points for the Cats, who are now on a three-game winning streak and play Wednesday at home against Ole Miss.
Most importantly, the Cats finally kicked its transition game into high gear with numerous fast break points. The final three minutes of the first half included two of the best dunks this season as Gilgeous-Alexander found Washington for a high flying alleyoop at the 2:57 mark and Diallou added a tomahawk dunk to extend the lead to 41-32 with 1:29 left.
Diallo put an exclamation point on the opening frame as he buried a three-pointer from the left wing in the closing seconds to give the Cats a 44-32 advantage at the break. Diallo was a perfect 3-for-3 from three-point range.
The Cats never trailed in the second half and continue to be locked in as they are battling for a top-four seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament.
After the game, John Calipari was in a festive mood after watching his young team triumph over a veteran Missouri team. Here is a recap of everything Calipari, courtesy of UK Athletics.
Q. With the stress of what was going on this week with him?
JOHN CALIPARI: You know, I don’t think -- I think he was great all week. The team’s getting better. What you’re seeing is a team that can play fast and a team that can grind it out. You’re seeing when I put Jarred and PJ in there, a team that can really, really rebound. Our assist to turnover ratio, which was under water now is going the right way.
We’ve kind of figured out Quade (Green) and Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander), and I gave Hami (Diallo) a hug in front of the team. They gave him a standing ovation. You know, it’s been hard, and I wasn’t going to kick him to the curb. I wasn’t going to throw him under the bus. It’s been hard. I’ve been spending, I told the team, 90% of my team has been figuring out how to I get this kid going, but I’ve got to win games. And I told them, if someone’s not playing great, it’s okay, just be better next game. But don’t expect to play when someone’s playing better.
Here’s the thing, Jarred had 15 rebounds, he would have had 20 if I went with one hand. But if he’s playing in front of you and he’s getting 15 rebounds, if you go in, you better rebound or he’s going back in. That’s just how it is. But we need Nick, we need Sacha.
Shai was good again, eight assists, one turn. I mean, you know, we right before your eyes, we’re becoming a better basketball team. It wore me out. But yesterday in practice, what I said to him, at one point I stopped him and I said, the reason I’m so relaxed and having fun coaching you, I’m not fighting everybody. It was only a month ago, three weeks ago half the team, it was a fight to get them to play how we were trying to get them to play. But the other side of it is it took us a while to figure out the team, and figure out Kevin Knox, and how we were going to play Jarred and what we were going to do, and Jarred joining us mid season made it hard.
Q. How much of a boost is it for any player and for any team to have the ball go into the basket again and again?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, I didn’t realize at halftime somebody said we shot 80% from the three. Really? I told you guys we had a pro scout, we had a couple in the other day, and one guy had been in ten times. He grabbed me and he said, Here’s what I don’t understand. I sit here and watch your team shoot in practice and they’re like unbelievable. Then they get in games and guys are shooting air balls. The same guy I saw make 15 in a row gets in the game and shoots an air ball. How is that?
And I told the players that. It’s more mental. Because, again, and it’s contagious. If one guy makes it another guy makes it, it’s a little bit contagious. But making free throws and doing the stuff that we’re doing, just getting better. We’re an athletic, long team. We can block shots, can play different ways, can play a bigger team and smaller team, and your smaller teams are still 6’9”, 6’9”, 6’8”.
Q. You talk every year how your best teams become empowered. Is this team close to that?
JOHN CALIPARI: Getting closer. Getting closer. PJ becomes that beast of a guy. Shai and Quade wants to do it. And now because he’s playing the way we need him to play, not now he played in high school, but this is how you need to play. Now all of a sudden you have guard that’s can kind of talk and do it. Jarred gives you a little bit of that too. Because leadership that you want on your team and the empowerment you want is not one guy. You’re trying to teach every one of these guys what it means to be a servant leader. What it means to be about each other. If you can have a team of four, five, six guys that are capable of leading, you have room for error.
A guy’s not playing well, guys get sick, a guy just struggling, then someone else picks it up and takes the mantel.
Q. When did you learn Kevin didn’t have any issues with eligibility, and did you talk to him about that today before the game?
JOHN CALIPARI: I didn’t. I mean, that was all the University dealing with it. I wasn’t involved in any way. But I felt good about it.
Q. What did you think of how your team kind of continued to pass well even when Missouri seemed to change up their defensive looks?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, we were good. Guys were good today. That, like I said, Missouri is one of the top 25 defensive teams and one of the top 25 offensive teams in the country, and they played the same kind of schedule we have. Maybe ours is a little bit harder, but they played a tough schedule. So you’re looking at a team that we ended up shooting 54 and 62 and 73, and only turned it over nine times. That’s why the score was what it was.
I’ll say it again, in March you’ve got to be able to score more than 60. There was a time in this season we were -- 62 was a big number, 63. I kept telling these guys you can’t win in that tournament. You’ve got to be able to get 75, 80 on the board against a good team because they may get the same on you because they’re a good team. We’re starting to play and figure it out and I’m proud of them.
Q. What options are you considering about getting Nick going and how important is he for the long-term goals?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, he’s important. He and Sacha (Killeya-Jones) both. I mean, one of those guys, and again, you put one in and then you try the other, and whoever has it going you can go with him. Because we’re going to play some teams that have a guy that they can guard better than Jarred or PJ (Washington) because of size, or Wenyen (Gabriel), because of physique.
But, again, just like Hami, they’re responsible for their performance. We’re going to continue to work with them and figure stuff out. You know, but we’re not -- just the way these kids are playing right now, Jarred and PJ, they’re playing better than the other guys. So, guess what, this isn’t communism. That’s not what this is.
Q. What did you like best about Kevin’s play tonight?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, he was patient in the second half when he didn’t play much in the first half. He came out and it’s amazing in the last three weeks how much he’s learned to read screens, to where he can bump two to get shots. How he can get in the middle, where he can find PJ, which he did on the baseline.
Just we’re doing this stuff every single day, and he needs it badly. Hami we’re doing it with every single day. You know, there are certain things and we’re scrimmaging every single day. We scrimmage.
Now you say this late in the season you’re scrimmaging? Yes. And I’m scrimmaging with different lineups, so they’re four-minute segments. Scrimmage, let’s go. So we’re doing drills for 45 minutes that we need and different things we’re getting them to think about, and then an hour of 45 minutes of scrimmaging and then shooting and other things that we’re trying to get done.
This team is different. It’s a different team for me. It’s taken me a while, and it’s not their fault. I mean, I’ll say it again. Jarred coming at mid-season put us in a scramble mode. But this team is playing more like my UMASS teams than some of my teams here or even my Memphis teams. This team is playing a little bit like that. And again, we only had nine offensive rebounds. But it’s hard. We didn’t miss that many shots. You know, you’re not going to have as many when you’re making that many shots.
Q. Cal, you’ve always talked about demonstrative performance quite a bit. It seems to be having an impact on the body language and just how they’re carrying themselves on the court during these last three games.
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, here’s what you’ve got. It started with Shai. Shai comes in at 7:00 a.m. in the morning and workout, shoot, he would then watch video. He never missed a class. Never late, never late for a tutor, did everything he was supposed to. And every day when we practice, here he comes, teeth and feet, enthusiastic.
I looked at the guys and I said who is our best player? This is about three, four weeks ago. Who is our best player? Shai, it ain’t even close.
Well, let me tell you what he’s doing. Let me ask you, what are you doing? Any of you come in at night? Why don’t you join him in the morning? How about some of you that are late or miss a tutor or do that? He doesn’t. Well, you’re tired? What? He’s not? Has he got a different body than you? Maybe you’re not getting enough rest? Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe you’re not eating right.
Who is the best in the weight room, Robert? Shai. So he’s also the best in the weight room. Do you wonder why he’s making himself the player he is? How about people join him?
So we’ve had some guys. Hami, I’ve been in the office 10, 11 at night, I look out and he’s out there shooting. I feel so good that I can stick with him.
Listen, I’ve said this before, kid’s playing poorly and a parent -- is he working hard, Coach? Is he spending extra time, because if he isn’t, that’s on him. Coach, is he listening to you? Is he doing what you’re asking him to do? Because if he isn’t, he shouldn’t be playing.
This is a parent that does not enable. That doesn’t say, well, you take him out but you don’t take him out and you do this. Why is he playing. No, that’s enabling.
Then the other side of it is okay, Coach, please love him and stick with him and don’t kick him to the curb. Let him know you’re with him and let him keep fighting. And that’s what we try to do with all these kids.
But I’m telling you, if they don’t listen, if they’re not doing all the stuff off the court they’re supposed to do, don’t blame me. I don’t even want to hear it. But if they are trying and doing everything right, they deserve to keep getting opportunities because I’ve done this 35 years. They will breakthrough. It just takes time and it’s torturous.
I love the fact that our fans gave Hami a standing ovation. That’s what fans should do. Instead of being down on a kid, that’s someone’s son. That’s someone’s child. And if it were their child, how would you want them to be treated? And you should see the smile on his face in there. And the players love it. They knew he was struggling.
Q. Defensive effort it seems like has been growing. Now it looks like they’re even enjoying it. Are they having fun with that?
JOHN CALIPARI: You probably have to ask them. But any breakdowns we have, because these teams we’re playing in our league are really good. They score. So if there’s a lack of communication, if a guy runs a gap when he’s supposed to be chasing, if a guy on a pick-and-roll, we were switching and he’s back even today, number three comes off, bang, bang, and where are you? You’re supposed to be higher.
But the reality of it is we’re scrambling now. Now all of a sudden there are effort plays we’re making. Out of nowhere a guy’s covering for another guy.
What happens when that’s your team and you can trust each other? You can risk more. The more you can risk, the better you’re going to be, especially turning people over, getting some breakouts and getting some free baskets. But no one will risk if they think they’re on the court by themselves. I’m just going to guard my man. I’m not going to help anybody. No one’s helping me, and it’s really difficult when you play that way.
We did for a while. This team is beginning to know that we’ve got to do this together. We’ve got to be about each other.
Q. You mentioned the UMass team. Cuonzo just came in here and said, We could not match their toughness. What goes into a team developing that?
JOHN CALIPARI: Sometimes you’ve got to put different guys on the floor. Dudes that are out there playing the most minutes are the toughest guys we have. They told me after Arkansas your bench scored 36 points, yeah, because three of my best players are coming off the bench. We’re going to score a lot of points.
So, again, this team, I love the fact -- PJ didn’t care that he’s not starting. Hasn’t said one word, and he’s playing his best right now. I didn’t start Wenyen in the second half, he didn’t say anything. These guys are all right now bought into what we have to do. We’ve got a couple guys thinking they should play more. But look at the guy in front of you. If I really think that, I’ll say who do you think you should be playing in front of? Tell him to his face, and that dude would probably laugh at him. You’re out of your mind. Lucky you played at all.
That’s how -- this is the competitiveness. But we’re all for you. Be ready for your opportunity. We need you. This team, we’ve only got ten guys. How about Brad’s three by the way? He missed the first one. I told him, you shoot this next one. You shoot it, you hear me. He started laughing. Happy for him though.