For the third straight game, the alarm clock seemed to be unplugged for the Kentucky men’s basketball team, as the Wildcats once again came out lethargic, falling behind 16-4 to Vanderbilt and setting the stage for a showdown on Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
Fortunately, Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley answered the call in the second half as the Cats held on to beat the Commodores 56-47 to move to 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the SEC.
Slow starts have become the new normal for a Kentucky team that has struggled to build momentum early. Most recently, Texas A&M raced out to a 10-0 lead against the Cats in a 85-74 conference win, while the recent loss to Alabama could be contributed to falling behind early and trying to play catch-up in late game situations.
After trailing Vanderbilt tonight 30-28 at the half, Johnson finally got things going in the second half after hitting two free throws to tie the game at 30 at the 19:26 mark. The 6-foot-6 freshman then hit a three-pointer, followed by an Ashton Hagans lay-up to cap a 7-0 run to give the Wildcats some momentum and a 35-30 lead.
Vanderbilt cut the lead to 45-42 on a three-pointer with 8:28 remaining. But a Hagans lay-up and Johnson basket in the lane pushed the lead to 49-42 as the Cats led by as many as 11 after Tyler Herro hit two free throws with 1:44 left in the game.
Johnson and Hagans led the Cats in scoring with 15 each. Quickly added 12. The Cats struggled against Vanderbilt’s 2-3 zone defense and shot just 4-of-16 from behind the three-point arc. Quickley was 3-for-7, while Johnson was 1-for-2. Herro, one of the Cats leading scorers of late, was held to just six points.
After the game, John Calipari and select players recapped the game and what it means moving forward. Here is a recap of everything they had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:
JOHN CALIPARI: We have got to figure out how we start games. It’s getting ridiculous. It’s five halves in a row where we just start the game and we’re getting smashed.
We lose a guy on a pin-down to open a game for a three. We have a simple interchange and our big guy, we’re telling him: That guy drives. Do not let him shoot.
Let him shoot and he makes another three.
They had 14 points in the first half in transition and we weren’t getting any. They were running back. They weren’t really trying to offensive rebound. They shot it and ran back to make sure we didn’t get baskets, and guess what, we didn’t.
They played zone for 40 minutes and it’s really difficult, folks, when you have young guys that are still learning the feel, when to look to the post, when to -- we were thrown around the perimeter and I was trying everything to just get something to work.
Immanuel (Quickley) made shots. I thought Ashton (Hagans) really defended again and did some stuff. We’ve still got to figure out offensively some things we’ve got to get them to do. And then Reid (Travis) and P.J. (Washington) had 20 rebounds between them.
But it’s a good win. Today, Alabama lost at home. Florida lost at home. Mississippi State lost at home. Someone else lost at home. Arkansas lost at home. We didn’t lose at home. It looked ugly early, but now we move on to Georgia.
Q. P.J. and Reid only combined for 8 points, but you said there were 20 rebounds. Were they doing things since they weren’t making --
JOHN CALIPARI: We weren’t looking to them. I couldn’t get the guards -- look, when you’re playing against a zone and the ball moves, the first look you have is to the post and if he’s open, you throw it. We were looking back at the guard that threw us the ball. That’s one.
Second thing, if you’re playing against the zone with all you Basketball Bennies in this room, if you put the ball above your head, what will the zone do? Uh-oh. Just backs away. Because you can’t -- unless you shoot a two-handed shot that way.
So the minute you go like this (raising hands), they back. And I kept telling the guys in every huddle, break -- you have to break it down and make him think you’re driving or shooting or they are going to back away, which is why P.J. and those guys didn’t get the ball.
The other guy again made a big difference in the game is Nick (Richards). Big difference in the game. Blocking shots. I mean, again, if he’s that guy and he keeps playing that way, we’re going to be alright. We need him to play a little more than he played, probably another five, seven, eight minutes but he played good again today.
Q. First of all, how is Ashton’s back? And second of all, you talk about other guys in the past, trading threes for twos and things like that, and you can’t make up for it on the other end. With all the steals he gets, does he sort of negate that at times?
JOHN CALIPARI: He’s a better shooter than people think he is, but he’s -- and I’m telling him in huddles, “Shoot it, man. I’m giving you the green light. Let it go.” But he’s just so used to running downhill.
You see him at the foul line, if you could go make 10 out of 11 from the foul line, you can shoot. I mean, you can shoot. The way they are playing him, it’s basically a foul shot, one step back. It’s the same shot. They are leaving you alone, so let it go.
Q. You had an exchange with Nick Richards when he went down hard, and he -- you looked like you were trying to sub in Reid and he waved him off. What was that exchange like and what were you feeling during that exchange?
JOHN CALIPARI: He was getting tired but I wanted to see him tough through that, which he did. We’re just -- we have to be more desperate to start games. We have to be more desperate for 40 minutes.
We have to understand that every team that plays us is excited and in the beginning of the game, they are coming. Over the length of the game, like in the second half, we held these guys to 20-whatever, 24 percent in the second half from the floor.
And again, if you can understand the beginning of the games, they’re playing Kentucky. They are in Rupp Arena. They are going to do things. They are going to play sharp. But as the game goes on, if you will stay desperate, you will have your chances.
I thought, again, you know, you could say, he doesn’t shoot the ball well but he was 7-for-9 and you say, yeah, but he had a runner and the rest were layups. So take layups. That’s fine with me. Immanuel Quickley, like I said, those were big shots for us. Big shots.
Q. Down early, and you guys fought back right there in the first half. How have they learned to trust themselves in those situations, those adverse situations?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, you know, I want them just like the Alabama game to understand, we were down nine and I kept saying: Play to win. Forget it. Let’s put it back on them. Get this thing close and let’s go.
In this game, you know, we didn’t want to give them easy baskets, so we weren’t trying to deny balls. And I was saying it in every huddle. If they all are playing and doing what we’re trying to ask them to do together, they can trust; we still break off. The last charge by Keldon (Johnson) was not what we were doing. He was supposed to curl and that ball was going to P.J.
Part of is because PJ and Reid didn’t get a whole lot of shots, so let’s get them some shots. Well, he chose to grab it, drive the baseline and run the guy over; “I was open.”
That’s not what we’re doing. That’s where we still have some of that right now. Leaving timeouts, don’t put the ball above your head. You’re choosing to do what you want to do instead of what this team needs you to do.
We’re still fighting some of that. But again, I mean, we’ve got good kids. It’s not like they are doing it on purpose. They just have habits and when it gets a little hairy, those habits pop out.
Q. What exactly happened to Ashton there with his back?
JOHN CALIPARI: Fell on a kid’s foot.
Q. You know how he is?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, I think he’s fine. He went back in the game. He’s a tough kid. I gave him a minute. I said, “You’ve got one minute and you’re going back.”
He said, “All right.”
Q. You held Vanderbilt to 17 points in the second half. What did you like most about your team's defense?
JOHN CALIPARI: We sustained effort. We helped each other. We were communicating pretty good. We got into their legs a little bit by the pressing.
But again, like I watched the tapes. Mississippi, who has beaten everybody, they had a chance, as you know, to beat Mississippi. As a matter of fact, probably should have.
They played Georgia everyone and saw the score but with five minutes to go, it was a two-bucket game. Matter of fact, there were points of the game they were up five or seven points. So they are capable, and you know it, and they can really score the ball
I thought they were going to play zone. I saw their Kansas State game, and they played zone against Kansas State and gave them everything they could handle. And I told them, and we worked on zone for two days. Obviously we didn’t work very good but we did work on it because I kind of thought that’s what they do.
On how his back is feeling…
“It’s feeling better, I just came down awkwardly. I just need to ice it when I get done with these interviews, but I’m feeling better.”
On why this team is always getting off to a slow start…
“That’s a good question, we really just have to come together as a group in practice. Listen to what the coaches have to say, but other than that, as the season goes along, we will click.”
On what the coaches may be preaching that isn’t getting to the players…
“Just playing our role and starting off by playing good defense. When we score baskets, we sometimes celebrate too much by not getting into the press or listening to PJ Washington off a made basket. Like I said, as the season goes along we will be much better.”
On why they weren’t able to get it to the post very much…
“I feel like they were overplaying the post. I guess Keldon (Johnson) and Tyler (Herro) couldn’t really see if it was open or not and just ended up taking it to the basket.”
On if it’s eye opening how much more tough they have to play in the Southeastern Conference…
“It’s definitely different. The game really counts. It’s SEC play so you know you’re definitely going to get every team’s best shot. They are going to come with everything they got and you’re going to get everybody’s best game. You’ve just got to be ready and match their intensity and come out and play.”
On what it’s like playing in a low scoring, defensive-battle game…
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves today. We just have to sit down and grind. It’s not easy the pace that we really like to play at, but we got down and we did what we had to do to come out with the win.”
On what problems Vanderbilt’s zone had on the game…
“It was definitely different, we haven’t really had a team play zone. We adjusted to it and we just kept fighting and kept fighting and just came out with the win.”
On the slow start…
“I really don’t know why. I think the starters did a good job in the second half and getting a good lead early. I think everyone is so jacked to play Kentucky, so that comes to play as well. They want to beat us so bad, but it’s hard to sustain shooting from 45 feet for 40 minutes. I think that’s a little bit of it too. I think the problem is a little bit about us not reacting to them coming out that well. We gave up some shots we shouldn’t have early in the beginning of the game. Also rotating off some guys we shouldn’t have rotated off. But, in the second half we changed that.
On the toughness in SEC play…
“The returning players and the coaching staff have told us that the SEC is a grind. Any team can come out and play, so you can’t take your foot of the gas. And, you can’t come into a game and take it lightly. I think as the season has gone on we have learned to trust each other more offensively and defensively. Learning to help each other has helped us to be able to win.”
On the type of team they want to be…
“I think coach wants us to be a team that can fly it up offensively and defensively. Overall, a team that can be in transition a lot. But, if we have to be a team that needs to grind it out, I think we can do that as well. Being the team coach wants us to be starts on defense, flying around helps us get into the transition. Steals and runouts contributes as well. We don’t want to have to come back like that, we want to come out strong. But, for myself, I try to bring energy off the bench, offense, just making shots, and then doing what you need to do to make shots.”
The Cats are back in action on Tuesday night at Georgia.