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John Calipari and Wildcats recap wild win at Auburn

The Cats needed this one.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The “Win or Learn” Tour was on full display on Saturday afternoon as the No. 12 Kentucky Wildcats escaped with a 82-80 win over No 14 Auburn to win its fourth straight Southeastern Conference game. But fortunately, the Cats were able to avoid a tough loss on the road, all while learning some hard lessons in the process.

Despite leading by as many as 17 points in the second half, the Cats found themselves scrambling for survival as Auburn pulled ahead 80-79 with less than a minute remaining on a three-pointer by Jared Harper.

Tyler Herro then hit two free throws with 24.1 seconds left to put the Cats back ahead at 81-80 to set the stage for a final possession by the Tigers, who build momentum late on the hot shooting of Bryce Brown, who finished with a game-high 28 points.

But it was Harper who would drive to the basket and miss a running floater in the lane to secure a gut-wrenching win for the Wildcats. Immanuel Quickley closed out the scoring with a free throw with 3.3 seconds remaining for the 82-80 final. Auburn’s half-court attempt fell short as time expired.

Despite a sloppy first half by both teams, the Cats would ultimately go on a 9-0 run over the final four minutes of the half to take a 35-37 lead into the locker room. Herro and Keldon Johnson led the Cats in scoring with 20 points each. Reid Travis took advantage of Auburn’s limited size in the post with 17 points, while PJ Washington added 13.

Kentucky, 14-3 (4-1) will be in action on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena against No. 24 ranked Mississippi State at 7:00 pm ET.

After the game, UK Coach John Calipari and select players recapped the hard-fought victory. Here is the recap of all postgame comments as provided by UK Athletics:

John Calipari

Opening statement…

”This is so hard for these kids, and let me tell you again what I’m proud of: We’re playing a veteran team that have been through wars and have been through games like this, they made shots, were down seventeen and never stopped, but neither did we. Keldon [Johnson] makes a play, Tyler [Herro] makes a couple plays, we make free throws. Again, the issue here is they’re pressing about individual play. You can’t for a team and be in that mode - you have to just go with what the team is asking you to do, and if you can’t do what the team needs, you won’t play much. In a game like this, it’s fight. The game was physical with a lot of hand-to-hand combat. That’s how the game is played here. I’m proud of him though (Johnson), and this is coming off a game where he scored no points.”

On the biggest difference in the game…

”The defense that we played in the first half gave us a chance. Auburn started in zone to start the second half and we were waiting on it. We were just waiting on that to start the game. But when you have a team that makes 3s like Auburn does, they’re never out of the game. My thing was make them drive. We gave them too many 3s down the stretch where we had our hand down, and bang. We’re lucky to get out of here alive. We’re lucky he (Jared Harper) missed that little shot.”

On if he thought game would be close at the end once they got a 16-point lead early in the second half…

”I don’t think that way. I’m playing play to play, looking at the score and trying to get these guys to realize that we walked out of two timeouts and they did what they chose to do and didn’t listen. It led to breakouts, bumps and dribble handoffs. We said no dribble handoffs and they got dribble handoffs. They do that because they are freshmen and their whole lives they choose what to do. I thought Reid (Travis) was really good today. He gave us something around the basket and got us easy baskets when we needed it. We made six 3s, only took 15, but we made six.”

On recent growth of Tyler Herro’s game…

”Yeah, I am seeing it. He wanted the ball, wanted it to come to him. I like the fact that Keldon (Johnson) was telling me he wanted it, too.”

On production coming from several guys in large numbers…

”Two nights ago I woke up and I said, ‘For us to win, Keldon and Tyler are going to have to score baskets.’ We came up with some stuff to run specifically to Keldon, packages that we’ve been working on. The other thing we did is ask ourselves who we would go to if we need a shot late. Who we would run to, and what are we running. So, this is a work in progress, this is a new team that has never played together so it’s a disadvantage that we have, but sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know that they aren’t supposed to come in here and win, be up 17. They’re just playing. The problem is that once the game gets going they revert, and start playing like it’s a high school game. For example, that Tyler foul (on Bryce Brown) fouling him, and I asked why he’d do that when we’re ready to bury them? So that’s the kind of stuff where we just have to tighten the ship up. But look, when you win on the road in this league, this league is ridiculous. Some of you remember me saying let’s get to the point where we get eight, nine, 10 teams in, and everyone laughed at me. Now you look and say oh my god we may get 10 teams in. You know Alabama had Tennessee on the ropes, and Alabama beat us.”

On teams’ record at home vs. on the road…

”These guys don’t know the difference between home and on the road. The way we played today, it was one of our better games and it was on the road. The game at Georgia was one of our better games. We may be playing better on the road than we are at home. This is the part of our schedule that is ridiculous, even though none of it is easy. We have every good team in the league twice, so we’ll enjoy this and then figure out what we’re doing next.”

On Tyler Herro’s defense on Bryce Brown…

”It wasn’t bad. He did pretty good. He’s trying, works his butt off and tries. Immanuel [Quickley] was good. I even thought Jemarl Baker went in and played good defense on Brown.”

On explanation for PJ Washington’s late game flagrant…

”I don’t know.”

On late game adjustment discussion with assistant coach Kenny Payne…

”Kenny was telling me that we should run some back doors - which we were prepared to do. The problem was Auburn’s center was standing underneath the basket, so even if we went back door they’d be there. On lob plays they were face-guarding the down screens, so you just come up and go lob, but you have to clean out the basket first and that’s what I was telling him.”

On not calling timeout when Auburn cut the lead to three late…

”Maybe I’m not a very good coach. No look, you guys that have known me over the years know that I like the players to play through stuff so they can learn to play by themselves. If you notice, I took two timeouts before free throws to set up the defense. I normally don’t do that. That’s how worried I was about them shooting 3s, and pick and rolls, and how we were going to play. You got to understand we were saying the same things in every huddle, and if I would have had three more timeouts I would have called them and said the same exact things. Offensively, if they made that last basket, we probably wouldn’t have called timeout. We were already set up for what we call ‘celebration,’ where they celebrate and we go right down your neck. We did the same thing at Alabama and Seton Hall and had our chances. That’s just the way I’ll do it normally.”

On strategy of not calling timeouts…

”I learned that from Larry Brown. Why call timeout and let the other coach work with their team? You work with your team and already know what you’re going to do, so what are you going to do besides tell them again. The issue becomes when you have young teams like this, that haven’t been together 3-4 years, there are times I’ll do it because I see panic and need to calm them down.”

Tyler Herro

On what Coach Calipari said in timeouts in the last few minutes of the game…

”Coach was just telling us to keep fighting. Getting down the stretch (he said) that they were going to make some plays, hit some shots. Just staying together, working as a team, and locking in defensively and getting some stops.”

On how good it feels to come into a super loud Auburn Arena and come out with the win…

”It feels good. That was a great atmosphere out there. Just sticking together, which we did, that was good to see. I think we’ve come a long way from where we were at the beginning of the season. We got leaders out there. PJ (Washington) and Reid (Travis) did a great job leading us and sticking together.”

On guarding Bryce Brown in the first half compared to the second half…

”Yeah, he’s great player. I felt like I did a good job on him. He hit some tough shots, so I mean credit to him. You know he’s a great player like I said. But in the first half, he was kind of fading away and not really in the offense. And then in the second half you could tell they were running a lot more sets for him. But I mean, he did a great job in the second half hitting tough shots.”

Keldon Johnson

On scoring 20 points after going scoreless against Georgia in Kentucky’s last game…

”It felt good. But I just give it off to my teammates. They just keep trusting me. If I go scoreless or if I have a breakout game, they still just believe in me. And it’s just the best feeling.”

On how good forwards PJ Washington and Reid Travis were inside in the paint…

”They were great. I think they did a great job. They did what they’re supposed to do. I couldn’t be any prouder for them. They just led us down the stretch. They kept us together. Even when things got a little shaky, they just bring us in and settle us down. They just kept us together the whole time.”

On what Ashton Hagans said to him in the first half and if that motivated him…

”He just told me to ‘wake up, man.’ Like ‘it’s not acceptable.’ If we want to be the team we want to be, I got to wake up. [He said] ‘we need you to play.’ I did it for my teammates. They have my back and I have there’s. And I just went out and played. And I know he wants what’s best for me, and we might argue sometimes on the court, but I know about my teammates and that they want what is best for me.”