There are no safe bets when fellow bluebloods Kentucky and Kansas get together for the annual SEC - Big 12 Challenge.
But on Saturday night at Rupp Arena, Kentucky’s 71-63 win over the No. 9-ranked Jayhawks produced a rare trifecta as the trio of PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Keldon Johnson each finished with a double-double (points and rebounds) to lead the Wildcats into the winner’s circle.
Washington (20, 13), Travis (18, 12) and Johnson (15, 10) led a balanced offensive attack that dominated the post with numerous points in the paint and a healthy dose of offensive stick backs. The combination of John Wall, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins last pulled off the feat of three double-doubles in 2010. Ashton Hagans was just a few short of his own double-double with 12 points and seven assists.
Trailing 37-35 early in the second half, the Cats pulled ahead 41-37 with a 6-0 run that included a left-handed runner by Tyler Herro, two free throws from Johnson and a stick back by Travis at the 16:12 mark.
Kansas quickly bounced back to tie the game at 44-44 on two free throws before Kentucky went on its second big surge with a 8-0 run behind a Washington free throw and stick back, followed by a Johnson three-pointer and a bucket in the post from Travis to push the lead out to 52-44.
Kansas freshman Quinten Grimes hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to 52-49 with 7:07 remaining. However, the Cats would hit 10-of-12 free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
The Wildcats, ranked No. 8 in the country, are now 5-1 against Top 25 teams this season after beating Kansas (No. 9), North Carolina (No. 11), Auburn (No. 16), Mississippi State (No. 22) and Louisville (No. 23).
Against Kansas, Kentucky struggled from the field in the first half, going 0-for-8 from three-point range as the Jayhawks led 33-30 at halftime. For the game, Kentucky was just 4-of-18 from behind the third-point arc, but had a 49-36 rebounding advantage, including 17 offensive rebounds and numerous second chance points.
Kentucky, 16-3, hits the road to face Vanderbilt on Tuesday night at 9:00 pm EST.
After the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to discuss the victory. Here is a recap of their postgame comments, courtesy of UK Athletics.
Q. What do you do about the bench and the lack of scoring?
JOHN CALIPARI: Did we just win? (Laughter) you know, I was asked a great question one time. We had won a game and the guy says to me, “Do you know their bench outscored your bench by 23.”
And I said, “Yeah, my starters outscored their starters by 40, how about that.”
You know, all I’m trying to do, I want guys, like today, P.J. had a spirit about him. He had a spirit about him. He had a confidence about him. He let the game come. There was no tentativeness to how we play.
I’ve been waiting for a year and a half for that, and I told him, he had one stretch where he fumbled a rebound, kicked it out and made a three. He had another play, another play, back-to-back to back, boom, you’re out, you’re not doing that here.
But he ends up -- “I got this.” He said, “I’m going to get nine more rebounds in THE second.” He had nine rebounds at halftime, and I’m mad he didn’t have 12. Think about what I’m -- at halftime.
Reid, we’re just learning. Nick had five blocks but he couldn’t come up with offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds which means you can’t play in this game because that’s how we were going to win. I thought EJ was good. Keldon, a double-double played good. Tyler didn’t make shots, but I thought played well because now he’s defending and rebounding, he doesn’t have to make shots every time.
Ashton and Immanuel played well. Jemarl played well. I thought Jemarl defended and missed that one shot, but the game, I was just trying to get out of the gym. At that point, you know, if someone didn’t get a whole lot of minutes, I’m not going to guess at that point but he’s fine.
Q. Early on at the very beginning of the game, it seemed like Reid is trying to do that thing --
JOHN CALIPARI: Bring the ball down and --
Q. -- and be hesitant --
JOHN CALIPARI: Aaaaahhhhhh.
Q. -- do you say something to flip that switch?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, I don’t say anything. I tell him keep doing it -- yes, I say something. I say it in practice. I say it over and over and over but he’s played that way for how many years. And now he comes with us, he’s been here three months and he reverts when the stuff gets going and he brings the ball down and he gathers and he can’t get it off.
But you saw him play his best when he fights for rebounds and quick jumps and you look and say, why didn’t he play like that all the time, because as the game -- there’s a game slippage, he reverts a little bit. It’s nice that we have EJ and Nick, because when he reverts, we can play one of those guys.
Q. It looked like about midway the second half, P.J. asked to come out, is that what you want --
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, and I want all of them do it. I told Keldon to start the game, he was jogging up-and-down the court and when we run, I mean guys sprint the floor, they have to guard those guys, which means Ashton got layups, or they throw it to them and they have an advantage to go score.
You can’t get that if you jog. Why would you job? That’s your choice, or you’re tired, and either one, you’re out. We’ve got to get guys springing the court.
But let me say this, too. We defended. We defended. I mean, we guarded and you know, we gave up some baskets late, but I -- you know, I like what I’m seeing. We out rebounded a good rebounding team. You know, didn’t create a whole lot of turnovers but that’s a veteran, older team.
Their point guard, again, for Dotson to be a freshman, he’s pretty damn good now. I told Ashton at one point, “You know he’s a freshman, too, now, right.”
Like just act like, “well” --
”He’s a freshman, too.” Like I said, it was a good win for us.
Q. Your defense in the last six games, all wins, has held the opposition to 61 points of less, field goal percentage, 40 points or less. What are some of the things that are happening now that maybe weren’t happening before?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we’re able to guard the ball. When we went to the Bahamas, we could not guard the ball, but we were playing teams that we could run through, and when you come back, and you can’t guard the ball, and you’re getting smooshed, you have no confidence, so now your team looks like a team that has no confidence.
When you have defensive confidence, that bleeds into your offense. Now all of a sudden you’re looking at a team that, you know, 11 turnovers, 12 turnovers, ten turnovers, that plays confident at times.
And you know, the only thing that made me mad at halftime, we got guys that either are in the lodge, in class or in the craft center. They are one of three. They live in the practice facility. They probably take 5,000 shots, maybe more, a week.
Why would you be tentative shooting the ball? You deserve to make shots. I told him at halftime -- you’re at you go in tentative -- you can’t be 0-for-8 guys. You don’t have to make them all. You just can’t miss them all. You have to make a couple.
Second half we were 4-for-10. That was the difference in the game. If we go 0-for-10 in the second half, we lose the game.
But this is a good 3-point shooting team. That’s why I kind of get bothered at times. Again, we’re a good post-up team. We’re a good driving team. You don’t need to rely on just jacking threes. But, if you leave us alone, if you trap the post, if you collapse your defense, we’re good enough to make those shots.
Q. Lawson got his numbers, but did you feel like coming into this thing with the waves that you could throw at them inside that you could control the paint like you guys did?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, I’ll tell you what Dedrick is, and I’ve known he and his brother for a long time. He’s a relentless player. So how many rebounds did he get on the second and third bounce, where everybody else stops and he just keeps going. He has an unbelievable feel to get the ball in the basket. You know, they are playing him around the goal based on they have to, but that kid could shoot threes, he could beat you on the bounce. He is a really, really good player.
And we did throw different guys at him. We tried to throw some length at him. Nick had five blocks. Nick played pretty good. But we needed rebounding. We needed someone to get some offensive -- couldn’t make a shot. We needed those, and that’s why Reed played well.
But no, he’s that good. You know, I thought we defended him pretty good. 20 and 15, and I think we did a pretty good job on him.
Q. At least three ranked wins in a row. The hype is growing again. How do you think these guys have progressed in dealing with success and not letting their foot off the gas?
JOHN CALIPARI: I made a statement and everybody went crazy -- I don’t listen to anybody so I don’t really care, but they went crazy about, I said to my team. I did not say it publically.
When we lost to Seton Hall, I said, “I want you to look at that as though you won. That should be your mentality because we are getting better.”
Then the Auburn game ended and I said the next day, “I want you to look at that game as though we lost.” The kid made the bounce. Does it change? We are getting better. We can’t live with results. Why? If you’re getting better, live with them.
There are thing that happen, flagrant one calls, there are things that happen that are out of your control. Are you getting better individually and as a team? We are.
We are making -- we are taking that gradual climb, and I know -- I don’t know if it’s a people’s opinion of what we were or their hope of what we were. Like some people have a hope and it’s not an opinion, it’s their hope we stink, and that I think played into it early, but how many years have I been here? This is ten. It feels like 22, it’s only ten? (Shaking head).
Q. What did you think of the atmosphere, the fan involvement and all that?
JOHN CALIPARI: It was really good. I thought Game Day was really good. They said it was one of the best Game Days they have had. There’s never going to be another one where there’s 22,000 like we had the first time we came here. I can’t remember what year it was, we had 22,000 at Game Day and these people thought we’re all nuts.
Today they looked and they said, Coach, this is a big time crowd for us. I want to thank the fans. They came in and they got their free ice cream.
So now in three weeks we have Game Day again -- you think so? All right. I’m going to have our president, he’s going to give away free scholarships (laughter) oh, I didn’t see you over there, Dr. Capilouto.
Q. Tyler went 0-for-4 from deep, but looked like he was defending really well out there.
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, and he rebounded well. Now, he’s still -- he had two turnovers, late. One on a post feed for no reason and one on a baseline drive when he just should have shot the ball. But he’s still learning. He reverts back to high school at times. He’s 19 years old.
Q. When you all lost to Duke in the Champions Classic, a lot of people thought, okay, maybe this team was over hyped. Do you think that could end up being a blessing in disguise for what this team has been able to do since then?
JOHN CALIPARI: I’d rather learn from a close win than an absolute shellacking that we took. But if it does help us, that’s great, but I don’t -- there’s no solace in what happened up there. We got absolutely clubbed by a very good team.
Q. You had mentioned the 0-for-8 three-point shooting in the first half and Keldon himself, he had missed a bunch of shots in a row and got that late basket in the first half. Did that do something for his confidence?
JOHN CALIPARI: I think you have to ask him. As a coach, you’re just, you’re challenging them. Like, dudes, you deserve to shoot well, so go in and let it fly.
And I don’t like when guys pass up shots, they ball fake when they are wide open and the reason they do it, they don’t want to take that shot. Well, then I’m not leaving you in the game. Shoot the ball.
You don’t shoot that, you ball fake and you drive in and try to do -- “I’m taking you out. You were open. Why didn’t you shoot?”
”Well I thought --”
”No, you did not want to shoot.” You should be confident. You’re shooting 6,000, 7,000, 5,000, shoot the ball. We have that kind of team.
Now, I don’t want to take 30 threes. I want us to take between 20 and 23 threes a game, that’s plenty. There may be a game we take a few more because we are shooting out of our minds. There may be games we are at 18 because we’re not shaking shots, or, it’s better off posting the ball than doing anything else.
But this is one of my best -- can you imagine this, my best 3-point shooting teams. One of the best I’ve had here.
Q. Speaking of confidence, P.J. hit four free throws late. Is that good for him, considering what happened to him last year in the Tournament?
JOHN CALIPARI: The option would be bad, but yeah, his -- I told -- he had a different spirit about him. There was no tentativeness. There was no, I’m not sure, but I believe, we showed he and Keldon on tape last game, flying down the court. I’m telling you, flying.
And when we showed the team, I said, “You mean you’re that fast? You’re that fast? You and Keldon are that fast? Well then why aren’t you running like that?”
I think when he plays at a different pace, a different level of intensity, a different level of bouncing and alertness, I’m telling you, he’s as good as anybody in the country. He is.
When he doesn’t, he’s okay. He’s just okay. So that becomes, what do you want. And then when you play that way, the hard thing is, to live up to that and have to do that all the time. Really hard. That’s when you become special where that -- you thrive in that environment. I’m going to show everybody every game who I am versus I’m a little tired today. I’m just going to kind of -- well, if you want to be one of those guys, thrive in that, and -- and I was proud of him today. And he did some of it in the second half against Mississippi State.
So hopefully he’s breaking through right now, and I think being in practice against Reid, Nick, and EJ every day, they are all getting better. Every one of them are getting better.
On what caused the difference in his pace …
“I just feel like the past three games, I came out aggressive from the get-go. So, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve been working on, just trying to keep moving on and keep playing 40 minutes like that. I think that’s the biggest thing for me.”
On his apparent good mood …
“I mean, we just beat three ranked teams in a row. I feel like our team is on the rise and I’m excited, and I’m just ready to go and play (Vanderbilt) now.”
On if the rest of the country is starting to respect this team a little more …
“They should. I mean, we’re winning right now. We’re on a roll, and we’re just trying to keep it going and just win all of our next games. We’re just going to come out and not underestimate anybody and focus on our game plan and try to play our game.”
On struggling through the first half …
“We didn’t make any shots. We couldn’t make anything: layups, floaters, threes, nothing. We knew that we would make shots in the second half. We just had to stop them from getting easy layups and fast-break points.
On how much he feels his game has improved from where it was a year ago …
“I’ve been working so hard in the gym every day. My shot, my body. I’m just working on getting my teammates involved a little bit more, and I feel like I’m more aggressive and more comfortable this year.
On the impact of Reid Travis’ performance in the first half …
“It was huge. He couldn’t be stopped down low, and we just tried to feed him the ball every time, and he was either getting fouled or making a basket. So, we just kept feeding him and he just kept giving us points.”
On why they’ve been winning and playing well these last six games …
“I feel like we are coming together as a team. Just having each other’s back and working hard every day is really paying off. A lot of it is defense, because if you don’t get back on defense, it’s easy buckets after easy buckets. So, I think that we have each other backs, and you can really see it out there because of all the defensive stops we get.”
On what’s been happening in these past six games that maybe wasn’t happening before …
“We are all on the same page. Everybody is buying in, and everyone knows their role and what coach expects from them. When we all buy in, good things happen.”
On where he think they are right now, being 10 weeks from the Final Four …
“I mean, we are in pretty good shape. We are just taking it game-by-game and day-by-day, trying to get better. I don’t think we are worried about the Final Four right now. We are worried about our next opponent.”
On the three straight wins over ranked teams …
“I mean, it’s good. But, I think we all know that we can do better. We have high expectations.”
On having three guys with double-doubles tonight …
“It’s very special that we can have three players a night – well, we have multiple players that can go out there and get double-doubles – but, we had three tonight, and it really shows that we were all hitting the glass and really focused.”
On how he thinks he handled the hype of this game …
“I think I handled it pretty well. I was locked in from the jump. I just did whatever I had to do for my team to win, and I hit open shots, played defense, and rebounded the ball. I think I handled it pretty well. I showed up for the big game today.”
On how it felt in the post …
“It felt good. At the start of the game, had a few that didn’t go my way, kind of went in and out. But as far as the game went along, I felt like I was able to get a rhythm and kind of see how they were defending me, and just go up a little stronger. It was a good day as far as that.”
On if there is something that flips the switch …
“For me, I know it’s going to be a long game or it’s going to give a lot of opportunities to start the game to try and get a feel for how he’s going to guard. You never know if they’re going to double the post and how aggressive he’s going to be, so I think he was kind of walling up and giving me more looks. So, I rushed a few at the start and kind of missed those, but as the game settled in, I had to just kind of take my time and understand that they weren’t really trying to prowl us, so just go up stronger. I feel like that’s how I got in the groove of it.”
On him and PJ Washington being productive and how it helps …
“It helps a lot. Me and PJ (Washington) play really well a lot of the times, and it’s going to be a tough guard for teams as far as really just trying to guard us both, and then you have to double team, and then that’s when he made that great pass and I got the dunk. So, they kind of ran away from that, and then once they do that in the post, then you have to play one-on-one, which I feel like is really what helped us out in the game.”