Despite returning for his sophomore season, PJ Washington’s lack of consistency has become one of John Calipari’s biggest mysteries.
On Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, the 6-foot-7 forward may have solved a huge piece to the puzzle after emerging as a potent three-point shooter on his way to a 21-point performance in a 76-55 win over No. 22 Mississippi State.
Washington was 9-of-15 from the field, including 3-of-5 from behind the three-point arc to lead a balanced Kentucky scoring attack. On the season, Washington is now shooting 14-of-34 (41.2%) from three-point range and is now back in the conversation as a potential NBA lottery pick in June.
Tyler Herro also had another stellar game, finishing with 18 points all while extending his streak of 21 made free throws over the last six games. The Wisconsin native is now shooting 91 percent on the season from the charity stripe.
After spotting the Bulldogs an early 4-0 lead to start the game, the Wildcats finally kicked things into high gear with an 18-2 run that included four three pointers from the trio of Tyler Herro (2), Keldon Johnson and Washington.
A steal and layup by Ashton Hagans pushed the lead to 18-6 and Nick Richards gave the Cats its biggest margin of the half with a jump hook in the lane to extend the lead to 20-7. Kentucky led 34-26 at halftime.
Mississippi State, one of the nation’s most effective offensive teams, shot a dismal 9-of-28 (32.1%) from the field and went just 2-of-12 (16.7%) from behind the three-point arc. Much of the poor shooting could be attributed to an active Kentucky defense that pushed the Bulldogs away from the basket, while also dominating the post.
Kentucky 15-3 (5-1) is now ranked No. 8 in the most recent AP Poll and will host the No. 9 Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday.
After the game, John Calipari and select players met with the media to talk about their big win. Here is a recap of everything they had to say, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Q. How concerned or curious were you how your team was going to play, coming off the big emotional win at Auburn?
JOHN CALIPARI: Every game we play, there’s emotion to it, so it’s a different feel for this program. Because whether it’s at Auburn or at Vanderbilt, they are all sold out and it’s a huge game, and so, we need to be more steady in how we do this, and we are.
I said the next, the Kansas game, is really, really big, because it’s the next game. I mean, we weren’t worried — I have not watched one thing on Kansas. I watched a little bit of maybe Iowa State, maybe. I think I watched maybe four minutes of them, live TV. I can’t tell you one thing about how they play.
This was about beating a top 20 team, a team that’s played well all year. A team that makes nine threes per game, missed some shots today, thank goodness, and then they rebounded like crazy. They are one of the best rebounding teams in the country. They missed a lot of shots that they normally make.
Q. Ben and one of his players was talking about your defense and how it sped them up, got them out of their rhythm. What did you think of your defense tonight?
JOHN CALIPARI: I thought Ashton, when you’re on the ball, playing like he plays, it bleeds into everybody else. If your guy at the point is getting beat on a dribble and can’t control the guy a little bit, you’re in jeopardy.
That’s why when we recruit point guards, if we have a guy, I tell them: How are we going to start our defense if he can’t stay in front of the ball? The stats don’t matter to me; can he do it. Last year, we had — Shai did it, and now Ashton does it.
I tell you who else did it, and he was sick today, and we don’t know if he had a flu or a virus, was Jemarl Baker. So when I went back to him, he said, “Coach, I can’t feel my legs right now,” so that’s why I didn’t go back to him in the second half and he’s another one that’s really — and the guy that’s really improved is Tyler. Tyler went from not being able to stay in front of anybody to like he’s not bad. Now, he leaves his feet, at times, but he’s not bad.
How about EJ today? Aren’t we all waiting for him to go do that. You say: Well, if you just play him more. Well, if the other kid is playing well, it’s hard.
But today we had a stretch where our two bigs were going through the motions, couldn’t fight. Okay. Bang; you’re out. We’ll play these two. Now you become the backups to them.
And I told those two, play as many minutes as you can play, you need a break, let me know and we’ll sub a guy off the bench and when you want to go back in, you go back in.
Nick was good again today. I thought Nick did some good things. And I like the fact that Travis had 12 rebounds, but still, missing some baskets you’ve got to make.
Q. You beat me to the punch on EJ but how significant, if it was, was it for him to see a jumpshot go down? He’s had — obviously he’s a good shooter. Just doesn’t look like it so far. You talked about Tyler earlier in the season.
JOHN CALIPARI: I told him, “It’s the first one he made all year. It’s good that you made one finally.”
I keep telling him, he’s going to break through and everybody is going to say, oh, my gosh, who is this guy.
I mean, did you see him block that shot? It changed the game. If we had another big guy in, and he just acted like, well, it’s not my man and didn’t block that shot and that ball goes in, we could have lost the game.
That changed the game. Those kind of plays, one, they make it so guards won’t drive in there, but two, they changed the game because you get breakouts down the other end. And he and Nick are able to do that for us. P.J. had some blocks today.
PJ played. Four blocks, 21 points and six rebounds and I still think he played without that motor parts of the game and that’s what was making me angry. Come on, man. Battle. But that’s how good I think he is.
Q. When you talk about P.J., what is it that you see when he gets that motor going or why does he not get it going all the time?
JOHN CALIPARI: Because he’ll dunk on you. He’ll go get a rebound in traffic. He’ll go block, and when he doesn’t, he posts up and the guy runs around him and tips it away. You try to throw it to him at the elbow; the guy runs around and tips it away, instead of fighting the guy.
Getting open, the same deal. Blocking out, on free throws, like you could step in and — or, your motor is running and you’re just blasting a guy, making sure you can get it.
He has that game, but he also has that other game and we’ve just got to tell him, it’s not acceptable. That’s why if EJ plays the way he is, it’s easy. You just go to EJ.
And I told PJ today, I said, I let you out six minutes and you know what you came in and played as good as you played all year. Maybe I should leave you out six minutes. Maybe that gets you going. Maybe you need to rest.
Q. You all seemed to struggle at times with double teams?
JOHN CALIPARI: Who?
Q. You guys seemed to struggle at times with double teams in the post.
JOHN CALIPARI: Spacing was just all of. And one, they double-team, Reid had P.J. under the goal, and we’re not talking enough. You need to talk on offense, as well as defense, but our spacing was all of. We got work to do.
Q. At one point in the second half, the lead was cut down to two points, and I think around that same time you inserted Nick Richardson to the game and everything changed. Talk about how he changed the game.
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, he and EJ both did and they blocked shots, and they changed what was going on but we made two or three plays, the last one where Ashton tried to shoot a ball with the 7-footer on him when two guys were open for threes.
I just said, “What are you doing? Those are the plays that you let teams back in it.” And then later, we come down and who makes the three that really mattered? Immanuel, and then he makes the free throws and all of a sudden it’s back to nine, then you bang a three, P.J. hits a three and all of a sudden. It’s 14-15 and it’s the ballgame.
But it could go the other way the same way. Those two, three plays we’re making them ourselves, they are self-inflicted that let’s teams be in the game when we should be good enough to be away from teams.
Let me say this: This is a top 20 team that did not shoot the ball well today. So what you saw, they usually make nine. They made three. They make their normal — say they make 7, this is a 5-, 6-point game and some of them were open.
Q. You talked a lot about becoming a player-driven team. What kind of strides have they made in that regard and what’s still left to do?
JOHN CALIPARI: They are getting better. Now I’ve just got to keep an eye on being humble and being hungry. Not, you know, getting carried away, because we’re just — we’re just beginning the climb of where we need to go.
We had 16 turnovers today. So we’re just beginning the climb. The last game against Auburn, we got up, whatever it was, 16, and I showed them the ten plays that we were self-inflicted that let them back in the game.
Now, I will say this: We made some plays that kept — they make a play, we made a play. But there were ten, two of them were free throw block outs. Another one was just bouncing one off your foot because you’re not really alert. Two of them, not getting open. Why would you not get open? Why would you run from the guy? We work every day on getting into — all those kind of things, it only takes one or two things to change the whole complexion of a game.
And so we’re showing them, we’re talking about it. They are engaged. We had a coach come in the gym the other day and watch us practice and said, man, are they engaged. They are really locked into what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do as a team.
Q. If this team, if this group is a puzzle, how many pieces are still off to the side trying to figure out where to snap them in?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we are still trying to mess with offense. I did a couple different things today that you guys don’t know basketball, so you wouldn’t know, but there was some things I did offensively that were different because I wanted to try some stuff. And I kind of liked one, and the other, I wasn’t so sure of.
Defensively, you know, we’re — I don’t like going game-to-game, changing how you play pick-and-roll. I’d rather say: This is who we are; you force your will on them, even though they know it’s coming. The old Green Bay Packer, what did they call that play, the sweep. You knew it was coming. Sweep! Touchdown.
So I don’t like changing, but we’re doing some things, at times changing up how we’re playing some stuff. But this is a smart team, so we can go over it in two days, and they usually are pretty good about it.
Q. Your request for people to donate to the fund for federal workers, how is that going and what prompted you to make that request?
JOHN CALIPARI: I wasn’t going to do anything, but I’m afraid this thing is going to keep going, and this is the shutdown. We have about 500 federal workers not being paid in our city. They work at the jail, TSA, agriculture, sheriffs. There’s about 500 people.
And what we did, the initial thing was, let’s get them some — where they could go get gas.
Folks, it’s literally a grant. They don’t have to pay it back. You know what I asked them to do? Pay it forward when you get paid. Give it to somebody else, and my hope is that they will.
Now I’m seeing it’s going to keep going, and we had earmarked about $250,000 and we kind of blew through it.
Now I’m saying, if we have to do this again, does anybody want to be involved. It’s probably raised about 10,000. Eric said, “Do you want to put it out again?”
I said, “Not really. I mean, if we have to, Ellen and I will do it again.”
But I went over to REACH four different times. Probably go over tomorrow. And when you see the people, they are all the people I grew up with, and they don’t deserve to be the brunt of this. Some of them were struggling before in with child issues and some other things and health issues, and now this hits them, and it’s just — I don’t think it’s fair.
So you know, we’re going to continue to do it and like I said, it was about $10,000. But I hope cooler heads — did anything happen today?
Here is a look at what Ashton Hagans, PJ Washington and Tyler Herro had to say:
On EJ’s “game-changing” block …
“EJ has been making great shots throughout the season. He works hard every day in practice. That was an EJ play, a great play like you said, changed the game and kind of sparked us a bit. EJ would be another great contribution to us. He’s already playing real well so I mean for him to come in and make plays like that is big.”
.@raf_tyler talks about his growth on the defensive end and how “running teams off the line” is the best strategy to defend the three point shot following tonight’s SEC win at Rupp Arena. @ASeaOfBlue #BBN pic.twitter.com/I1KqX7gZrk— Greg Goins (@BBN_CoachG) January 23, 2019
On the energy the team played with …
“Just starting games faster. I think Auburn we started pretty fast, too, and then today was another good example of starting fast. So, I think, the last two games before that we started slow so just starting fast is something that we’ve been working on.”
On what he has been working on …
“The coaches worked with me at the beginning of the season a lot on just keeping my man in front so just taking what they told me and, you know, just applying it and working hard at it.”
On the UK defense speeding Mississippi State up and getting them out of rhythm …
“I feel like we’re coming together on defense and we’re playing a lot better. We’re talking more on the defensive end.”
On what the win has done for the team and how they’re going to move forward from it …
“It was a great team, but we just were coming along on our defensive end, talking more, gaining more confidence from all the players on the defensive end. Keldon (Johnson) had the low steal for the fast break, but other than that, we’re just getting better as a team.”
On if the team makes defensive goals ahead of a game…
“Not really. You’ve seen me doing the slides before every game, but that’s just something we do everyday preparing us for game day. We’re just trying to stay comfortable.”
On if he has any frustrations…
“Yeah, I missed a dunk. I don’t usually miss a lot of those, so that kind of got me frustrated. But, then I took my sleeve off and said I’m not missing those anymore. I feel like after that, things got to clicking and we kind of made up for it.”
On if he felt good from the outside tonight…
“Yeah, I felt like I was hitting shots and I just tried to take other ones. Fortunately for me they all dropped, so that’s definitely a confidence booster. I’m going to shoot some more I guess.”
On Calipari wanting to see more effort out him all the time…
“I mean it comes to, I have some relapses sometimes. Sometimes I won’t rebound and stuff like that, so I’m just trying to look at film and just work on that in practice.”
On the team’s defense…
“We definitely did a great job towards the end of the second half, but we had some slow starts in the beginning of the game. So, we have to work on that in practice, just being able to stay locked in on both ends of the floor.”