The starting gate has not been kind this season to Coach John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats.
Once again, the Cats fell behind early, as Texas A&M raced out to a 10-0 lead and seemed primed for a frantic race to the finish line. Fortunately, the Kentucky bench kicked things into high gear as Immanuel Quickley, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery and Jamarl Baker combined for 20 first half points as the Cats built a 12-point halftime lead and ultimately held on for a 85-74 win over the Aggies at Rupp Arena.
After a dismal start, Kentucky took the lead for the first time at the 11:28 mark as Montgomery blocked a shot that resulted in a Quickley lay-up to give the Cats a 17-16 lead. Tyler Herro hit a three-pointer at the 9:24 mark to extend the lead to 24-16, and an Ashton Hagans steal led to an intentional foul and multiple technicals that resulted in a four-point play, as the freshman point guard hit four straight free throws to push the lead to 33-21.
Keldon Johnson then scored in the post to complete a rare six-point play, as the Cats built some much-needed momentum to lead 46-34 at the half.
Turnovers and an improved Texas A&M offense allowed the Aggies to fight back and cut the lead to 66-64 with 7:52 remaining on an uncontested inbounds play that resulted in a foul and a made free throw. The Cats responded with back-to-back three pointers from Quickley and Herro to extend the lead to 72-66 with 5:40 left.
Hagens then scored eight points over the final five minutes, including a pair of lay-ups and hitting 4-of-4 from the free line to seal the win. The Cats were 21-of-23 from the line (92 percent).
Herro led the Cats with a game-high 21 points, while Hagans continued to establish himself as an elite point guard, scoring in double figures for the third consecutive game with 18 points and four assists. Quickley finished with 10 points.
Kentucky (11-3, 1-1), now hosts Vanderbilt at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday night.
After Tuesday’s win, head coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to recap the game. Here is everything they said, courtesy of UK Athletics:
Q. I thought the three bench guys, between EJ (Montgomery) and then you had Nick (Richards) and --
JOHN CALIPARI: Jemarl (Baker Jr.).
Q. Jemarl, man, right away, you guys, 13 the first 17. That really set the pace of this game.
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, I thought Jemarl Baker went in and was just playing basketball. Wasn’t playing for himself. Wasn’t trying to get his. If a guy was open, he threw it to him and guess what? It changed a whole complexion of the game.
Willing passers is all I’ve been talking about, willing passers. We still have guys that yeah, I’m willing if I can score my points, and you can’t play basketball that way. It was him and Immanuel (Quickley) playing within what he needs to do and who he is, and he’s playing great right now.
Ashton (Hagans), obviously you guys all saw it. Ashton is making a difference in the game. People act like he can’t shoot. He can shoot. But his game has always been getting at the rim and the way he defends and what he did. We had some guys that got outworked. Just got outworked and think it’s OK. Like what’s the big deal, you know who I am.
You’re either outworking the other guy or he’s outworking you. I’ll give you -- we said at halftime, we were going over all pick-and-rolls, so now you’re going to ask, ‘Well, why did they go under and give them 3s? Your game plan was to go over the pick-and-rolls?’ Yeah. ‘Well, why would they go under?’ That’s a good question to ask: Why would you do that?
That’s what inexperienced teams do. The other play, the timeout, they have it on the baseline. I drew up that play. Here’s what they are doing. One guy broke down. Didn’t do what he was supposed to do. It’s like football, folks. You ready? The quarterback goes like this: The whole team runs that way and he hands off this way (indicating opposite direction). That’s when the whole arena says, ‘Who was wrong? Were the other 12 guys wrong or the quarterback?’
We’re breaking down execution right now and it’s driving me crazy, and it’s one guy. Like we were -- we were going to let one guy shoot. Do you know, when he ball faked, we were going to let him shoot. Let me say this again: We were going to let him shoot and he ball faked, three times, and not like little. We left our feet and jumped two feet in the air.
So that’s the kind of stuff that we’ve got to clean up and it’s just not acceptable if we are going to be any good. You cannot play that way. This has got to be a team playing together. Really happy for Ashton. I’m happy for Immanuel and really happy for Jemarl and how he played. EJ did some good stuff and then the game got a little rough and it got away from him. Like I said, if you can offensive rebound, do you understand I’m not taking you out? Don’t get blocked out. A shot goes up, go, move, run, don’t ever run into anybody.
So we got a lot of stuff we’ve got to get done, but it was a good win.
And let me say this, I watched the game with Arkansas, Texas A&M, and it was like a tie game with a minute or two to go. They could have easily won that game against Arkansas. Arkansas made three 3s in a row down the stretch, which is how they won the game.
So, you know, I think Billy (Kennedy) is doing a heck of a job keeping his team where they have a chance. They had a chance to beat us today.
Q. What do you see that tells you the players think it’s OK to be outworked?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know. You probably have to ask them that. Maybe they don’t think they are being outworked. But you know, if you’re playing 25 minutes and you get two rebounds and the guy you’re guarding against gets eight rebounds, the ball was bouncing his way -- oh, OK.
I mean, we just, again, even guards. How about this one. You’re coming off a screen from Reid Travis, who is a beast and the best screener in the last 10 years, and the man pushes you off the screen and does not get screened. Did he outwork you? Yes, he did. He got Reid. All you’ve got to do is run him in. Don’t let him push you away. You fight him more than he fights you and run him into the screen.
Now, I thought that’s what Tyler (Herro) did in the second half, which got him in the middle of the lane. Did a great job of fighting. But if you don’t fight, that’s all competitive stuff.
Q. Ashton, 18 steals in the last four games and averaging 6.4 per 40 minutes. What is the knack about -- and probably another dozen times deflected it --
JOHN CALIPARI: Anticipates. Anticipates. And he does get his hands on balls. He anticipates.
So we have guys that when their man catches it, they start playing. He’s playing before his man catches it, and if he sees an opportunity to go after a ball, he does. If he sees an opportunity to deny his man the ball, his man doesn’t get the ball. If some other guys deny the ball, at some point, they will let go and the guy will coach it. He just says, you are not catching it until they throw it to somebody else.
Q. How much does that change for him where early in the season he was great and off the ball he was lost?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s not just him off the ball. We’ve got a bunch of guys off the ball that we’re working with. And again, it’s high school. The ball’s passed and you’re not guarding the ball, you stop. You rest. You breathe. You’re waiting to get shots down the other end. If I can’t get a shot, I’ll pass it to you. That’s how they all come here. That’s what we have to break down.
Q. When you were recruiting Jemarl, how much of this other stuff he’s doing other than shooting was evident?
JOHN CALIPARI: I didn’t know that he could defend the way he defends. He really plays hard. Really tries. And I told him, as long as you defend and rebound, I can leave you in games. You know, just tell him, just be solid, no crazy stuff. The pass he threw to the post, no need. You’re forcing it to someone that was not -- if you’re making that pass, it’s because he can catch it and score. If you’re throwing it to him and he’s going to catch it and can’t score, why throw it to him? Don’t do that.
So he made that play, but other than that, kid’s playing. I keep telling him, if any of these guys are in that funk or they are not focused or they are not into it, or if my offense doesn’t go, I can’t play, then he’ll play. I told him, you’ll get your minutes now.
Q. Minutes for Nick Richards in the first half and big block late in the game. Is he taking another step closer to being that guy?
JOHN CALIPARI: He’s getting better. He played 11 minutes, and I think two rebounds. No, I’m sorry. One rebound. I mean, come on. Go get balls. You can’t -- how about getting offensive rebounds? Because if these guys are playing and you get an offensive rebound, you leave guys in the game. ‘Well, he blocked me out.’ Don’t let him block you out. ‘Well, he pushed me.’ You fight harder to get around him than he is to block you out.
But that’s really hard. ‘Can I just shoot a jumper?’
I mean, that’s -- this stuff is really hard. It’s you and that guy, and I’m just -- I’m telling he and EJ, if he goes to block you out, don’t accept that. I’m not getting blocked out. You’re not blocking me out. I’m not going to lay on you when you come at me. I’m going to move and be active. Normally when EJ’s fresh, he’ll do it. We’ve got to get Nick playing that way. It’s great, though, because EJ had two blocks. Nick has two blocks. There’s why I want to play him. It changes the game for the other team when they block shots.
Q. It seems like compared to teams in the past, you’re having to micromanage a bit more in terms of where players are on the floor. Is that a concern?
JOHN CALIPARI: They are not empowered yet, let’s just say that.
At some point, if this team is going to be what I believe they can be, they can be one of those teams, they have to be empowered. That means that I shouldn’t even talk about effort and intensity and fight. Shouldn’t even come out of my mouth, not once.
And there should be times they huddle and talk, instead of me telling the guy, ‘Why would you break off that play?’ They grab him and say, ‘Why did you do that?’
Today I liked the fact that EJ got after one of the guys and said pass the ball, man, why are you being selfish.
If they have to have it all for me, I don’t want to do it. I don’t have fun doing that. I have fun cheering.
But the other side of it is, we’ve got to win, which means I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get these guys over the finish line. Today, I was like dragging, literally, dragging. I’m exhausted right now.
Q. The first 26 minutes, PJ (Washington) didn’t score and then he gets nine points for you, and then the second thing, just wondering, what did they tell you about why they were going under the screens just so we can compare it?
JOHN CALIPARI: They weren’t. So we’ll wait and watch the TV. We’ll watch the tape.
You know what’s great about tape? It does not lie. So I say, ‘Well, if that’s not you going under that screen, who is that? So someone went under. That’s not you someone put on your uniform?’
But we’ve done this all year now. We did it down at Alabama. We were not going under 24, no. We went under three times and he made three 3.
‘Why did you do that?’
‘Well, I was in the -- and the apple fell and the bike hit the rack and I went under.’
What? That’s kind of where we are, and it’s just, you know, like I told them, I’m not going to stop coaching them. I’m not. I’m going to tell you when you’re doing right. I’m going to tell you when you’re doing wrong. We’ve got to get this thing right. And I’m saying this, we’ve got great kids. We really do. Great kids who are talented and who just, we’ve started becoming a team. I think out of fear, we had two games that we’re like, oh my gosh, we can’t win either one of these, and out of fear, I think they went like this, and then we won two, and then all of a sudden we’re like, alright. Now I’ve got to get back to -- well, that’s my job and if they started separating and I didn’t see it, that’s on me.
Obviously that’s what’s happened. Not as willing passers, not as much help on defense on the weak side and not as much fight possession to possession. But we’ll get there. That’s what the whole season is about building, the whole season. We won a game. We won a league game. Won our first league game. Good start.
Q. The breakdowns on execution, is that a typical challenge you face every year, or is it just more profound with this group?
JOHN CALIPARI: The breakdowns are game planning break downs. Here is how we’re playing this stuff now, let’s go. Here is how we’re playing this paragraph par now, Tony Barbee had to switch late, and we just switched, pick-and-roll because we couldn’t -- couldn’t guard the pick-and-roll, so we just switched, and our bigs guarded their guards and our -- we fought like crazy behind.
And that worked. They scored one basket, and so there are times they will but there are other times, it’s just the focus on what I’m supposed to do is not quite there. And they have got to get there, and then there’s, you know, coaches do enough stuff to get them to do the right stuff, and we just -- we’ve got to stay with it.
Q. I understand you are fluent in Mandarin Chinese --
JOHN CALIPARI: Ni hao. Shay shay.
I would talk in Chinese but none of you would understand what I’m saying, so (laughter) --
Q. The coach of the Chinese National team is here --
JOHN CALIPARI: It would be he and I talking by ourselves, so I won’t do that to the rest of you. We’d start laughing and you’d go, ‘What are you laughing about?’
Q. The Chinese National team is here all week, and I don’t know if you realize, but he’s probably as popular in China as you are here. What are you two hoping to accomplish?
JOHN CALIPARI: Two weeks ago I wasn’t real popular but that’s OK. (Laughter).
Q. What are you guys hoping to accomplish in your collaborative effort? Is there a recruit --
JOHN CALIPARI: Here’s the whole thing: They called about coming over. When I was in Memphis, I brought probably 50 to 60 Chinese coaches over and worked week, two weeks at a time. We kept one coach for an entire season, and the whole idea was to connect. I was hoping at some point to get a Chinese player, maybe from the United States, maybe from China, because you may not understand, their CCTV sports, 350 million people watch it. How many people do we have in our country?
Q. 350 million.
JOHN CALIPARI: OK. They are watching -- that’s who is watching this sports stuff.
To be that kind of program, worldwide, and I’d like it for this program the same. If we could get a Chinese player who would want to come here and can play here, make me happy.
And again, Coach Li (Nan) has been over here like three times. This is his third time to be with us and Coach (Limin) Xu is the women’s national team coach. Coach Li played for Del Harris on the national team. He was the captain.
So yeah, he is very -- he’s very famous and very well liked over in China.
Jemarl Baker Jr.
On how you played tonight...
“I think I played well. I just got out there and played hard and played to my strengths. I’ve been working hard and getting better. So, I just thought I would leave it out on the court.”
On developing his game this season …
“I just got in and played my game, just brought effort and energy. I just played as hard as I could.”
On not playing basketball for the attention and hype …
“Yeah. I just played my game. I don’t like to force things. I am not trying to be flashy or anything. I was just trying to go out there and play basketball.”
On surprising people this season …
“Well, I knew I could. I just try to work hard and play my game whenever I am on the court, just in practice and in the game and I think people are just starting to notice who I really am.”
On bouncing back from an Alabama loss …
“It feels really good. The Alabama game was tough, but we bounced back. It felt extremely good.”
On getting the win vs. Texas A&M…
“It was tough. We had to fight and be resilient. Guys came to play – Jemarl (Baker Jr.) and Tyler (Herro) played well. I think everyone played well. We just played hard, played together and those were the deciding factors in winning this game.”
On the bench scoring points…
“Coming off the bench, that’s your job. Come in, get the spark and get the team going. That helped us get on track and also stretch out the lead. It was a collective effort and that was our job throughout the game.”
On how the team played tonight…
“I think we started pretty slow and eventually we got it going a little bit. Second half we played a little bit better. I think, overall, we have to start games quicker and better. I think against Alabama we started slow too, so I think just being ready from the beginning of the game.”
On what got things going for the team in the beginning…
“Just moving the ball. Jamarl (Baker) came in and he shared the ball very well. Inside we did some good things and outside Ashton (Hagans) was doing great. Ashton continued to make plays and get steals on defense, he creates a lot for us.”
On the team’s recent setback…
“I think we took a step back, definitely at the Alabama game and here tonight too. I think just lack of focus in some areas and defensively, going under ball screens on some guys when we should be going over. Just paying attention to the scouting report and locking in, in that regard.”