After a tough loss to Utah on Wednesday night, John Calipari and his Wildcats had an opportunity to make up for it with a game against Ohio State. It ended up as a missed opportunity, though, as the Buckeyes beat Kentucky 71-65 in the CBS Sports Classic. This sends UK home from Las Vegas with two losses and more questions than answers.
The Wildcats actually hung with the Buckeyes throughout the contest. Ohio State’s largest lead was only seven and Kentucky kept it within a possession for a majority of the game, but they just couldn’t ever take control of the game. Ohio State always had an answer and Chris Holtmann’s team deserves a lot of credit for that.
UK even got the best performance they've gotten so far out of Nate Sestina this season. Without his shooting, this game would have been a lot uglier than it already was at times. Sestina scored a season high 17 points on 5-8 shooting from three point range. It was a welcome sign to have Nate break out, but it didn’t result in a win.
It was a struggle on both sides of the ball for just about everyone else. Ashton Hagans showed out in the first half but was held relatively quiet in the second. Tyrese Maxey scored 15 points, but his inconsistency on offense can be very frustrating at times. Nick Richards was limited to 2 points and 0 rebounds in 12 minutes due to foul trouble. When you look through the box score, you’re just left wanting more across the board.
Here’s what Calipari and some of the players had to say after the game:
THE MODERATOR: We’ll start with questions for the student-athletes.
Q. For both you guys, Nate, how do you explain the difference from your game against Utah and the way it unfolded tonight. And Ashton, after he answers, what sort of impact do you think Nate had on the game?NATE SESTINA: I kind of talked to you about it earlier, just coming back for my first game after an injury I was a little hesitant, didn’t want to put my hand out there, put it in passing lanes, go up with two hands to rebound. And I talked to the coaching staff and they were just like, listen, you need to just forget about it, forget about the injury. Talking with our trainer Jeff he kind of said the same thing, just go out and play and don’t think about it. And I tried to do that today, diving on the floor, not thinking about it. But I think kind of carrying that over into today it was just a toughness thing. We knew they were going to be physical, the Big-10’s known for that, I played Ohio State last year, they were physical, so I kind of knew that coming in and I was just trying to do the same thing for them.
ASHTON HAGANS: Nate’s presence being on the floor it was a big deal tonight. He knocked down some big threes that we needed and then got other guys hitting shots, which he’s a vocal leader at all times, on and off the court and that’s what we need, but also the Utah game we didn’t start off with no energy, there was none of that. Tonight I feel like we had a lot of energy starting off the game, finishing too, but we just messed up on certain parts, but now we got a couple days to fix that when we get back from this break, just ready to get back to work.
Q. Ashton, what’s the most important thing in your mind that this team’s got to get right, figure out in the next however many, two, three months?ASHTON HAGANS: There’s nothing too big, I would just say just coming together more, having each other’s back more, helping each other out. But other than that I think we’re getting it, everyone’s getting their role coming into it, but obviously also we just got to start sharing the ball but that comes with getting closer on and off the court. But it’s just small things right now.
Q. There were a couple times during the game you kind of grabbed guys and were saying something to them after a play or something. Is that something you’re trying to do more of and kind of what was going through your mind on some of those things?ASHTON HAGANS: Just trying to get guys going, not too much on them but just trying to talk to them. If we mess up, just keep talking to them, like if I do something wrong, I know I’m going to hear it from Nate, I know I’m going to hear it from E.J., things like that, so that’s just what I try to do, just talk to the guys every time.
Q. The Ohio State guys talked about this game being a 40-minute grind, kind of a test of wills. And you guys were right there blow, counter blow, how do you feel about coming out of a game like that against a highly ranked team right there?NATE SESTINA: For us it kind of shows where we are right now. I think from the beginning of the year until now we have really improved our toughness you saw guys getting chippy, guys were bumping guys around, diving on the floor, guys stepping up, blocking shots. Like I said before, like this is a big toughness game for us and I mean I don’t really remember the score but I think we were starting to click and we’re like two or three possessions away from really getting this thing going and it really starts with like Ashton said, it starts with on and off the court relationships and we’re starting to do that. Guys are hanging out with guys outside of basketball and that trust carries on to the court so that every time we step on we know that guys are going to be there for each other.
Q. Nate, after two straight losses on this trip, what was the mood like in the locker room after the game?NATE SESTINA: Pretty solemn, but we have a team full of guys that are ready to play and the game coming up is huge for us, it’s an in state rivalry, it’s a big, another big toughness game for us, and the tension around that game is so much more and we know that and the attitude for them coming in, the attitude for us coming in, it’s kind of the same thing, it’s two big dogs going after it and whoever is hungrier at the end of the game is going to get the bones as Kenny Payne said to us tonight.
Q. I know you guys just came off two big losses but the Ohio State head coach, he did say that Coach Cal finds a way to make runs deep in March. What’s your confidence in him and each other and what are you going to focus on once conference play starts?ASHTON HAGANS: We had our up-and-downs with last year, this year it’s the same thing, we lose we always hear something but we just got to stick with each other. Cal’s coaching us to win in March and so we just got to keep on fighting no matter what happens, just stick with each other like I said earlier and just keep fighting.
Q. Nate, you’ve not played in the Louisville/Kentucky rivalry yet but I’m sure the guys have talked to you about it. What are you expecting in that game next weekend and what have the guys told you?NATE SESTINA: It’s going to be a dog fight and Cal said to us today that they’re like 1-11 against us and however long and that’s big. I mean they’re coming in looking to get a win, we’re coming off of two losses, they think that we’re going to come in and kind of lay an egg, so I think for us and for me personally at least I haven’t played in this game you I understand what it’s like to play in big games and in a rivalry game like this is something that I’m really looking forward to. When I committed here that was one of the games that they talked about, so I’m really looking forward to it, got to get away, take a little mental break, be home for Christmas, I know everybody’s going to be in the gym, everybody’s going to be working out and we’re going to come back and get after it.
THE MODERATOR: All right, we’ll let you get back to your team. Coach, give us your thought on this afternoon’s game.
JOHN CALIPARI: We fought. We tried. Thank God we had Nate. I think we put ourselves in a position where we had a chance to win, we just wouldn’t pass the ball. We’re still, we’re opening up the courts to drive people because everybody will collapse and they did collapse and we tried to shoot it anyway. I mean we did -- I called my last timeout to make us pass that ball where E.J. threw -- I called a timeout to say, you’re going to pass this ball. So we came down three straight times with guys wide open and shot it into a guy 6’-10”. We’re still learning. But if this is who we are, we’ll be fine. Nick didn’t play great, E.J. played okay, we just got to get those guys going a little bit.
THE MODERATOR: All right, we’ll take questions.
Q. Over the last several games you said our guys aren’t passing the ball. What has?JOHN CALIPARI: They started today, we did pretty good for awhile. It was in the last four minutes they wouldn’t pass. I mean, I thought they did a good job, we got 17 assists and 11 turns, which in our case usually wins games for us. But there could have been three more assists in the last four minutes and we would have had 20 assists, 11 turns and it would have been like a good night. But we chose to try to score it versus, they’re collapsing, that’s what they’re doing and I, what Nate did for us, folks, is he started making shots so some other guys, it’s contagious, they can make a shot now. So we get seven today. If we get seven we’ll be fine. Seven for us, eight, six, a game, we just can’t go 2-17. 1-12. And the problem is we still had a lot of guys go 1-6, 1-5, and they were wide open like they’re wide open and when those guys start making it, we’re spacing the court how I would like to space the court. So we can get to the rim. Now unusual for us to get, have a team shoot more free throws than us. Like on the year we’re way more free throws than the other team. This is an aggressive team, they’re, they were physical, they did some good stuff.
Q. After the Utah game, the way it ended on Wednesday, did you get an explanation on the restricted circle?JOHN CALIPARI: I asked about the one today.
Q. Did you get -- the way it ended on Wednesday did you get a different explanation today?JOHN CALIPARI: They, you know, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
Q. The start, it seemed like this was the Derek Willis plan for Nate?JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah.
Q. To come in as a stretch guy and let him shoot threes?JOHN CALIPARI: Yes.
Q. When did you decide --JOHN CALIPARI: Before we talked about it, just so you know. So we spent two days just like one of the things I said, Nate, what were we running for you to get you threes? And then we put in some stuff and what they did after he banged a couple, they just said okay we’re going to switch. Well, there’s two things you do, you run him into the post with the point guard, and you bring that other big out or you tell your point, it’s called a boomerang, he throws it, they get it right back to him and he goes downhill right at that big. You do one of the two. We’ll work on that kind of stuff, we haven’t had it. The biggest thing is we got the ball in the lane like we want to and we just ran people over. I told Ashton, he played great, but he’s got to lead us the whole game. The play at the end of the half where he just, a minute to go, we could have gone in up at halftime, and he just, you’re down one versus two and you ran the guy over. Wait a minute. And we had a good game plan of trying to grind them out a little bit because they’re a very good defensive team, they played very physical, they’re a bump and grind kind of team and we wanted to bump and grind them and I thought we did pretty good. I mean I, at the end of the day, I don’t know exactly what we shot, but it was pretty high and they make 10 threes a game that was an emphasis for us and we held them until the last two where we rotated and they made two at the end. So you hold attempt that makes 10 to basically four, I thought we did good. This was a good time for us. I mean the last 10 minutes of Utah and this game, I mean that’s a top 1, 2, 3, team. That’s what they are. Their shooting guard played today, he had been out a couple games he didn’t play against Minnesota in the last game, but he played today. And so for us to be able to say, okay, now let’s clean up all this other stuff, let’s get guys to fight, Nick’s got to come back, I told him, you got to get back in the gym, you put yourself in this position by how you practice and how you approach this, now we, it’s not acceptable, let’s go.
Q. Follow-up on Nate. You may have answered it with not passing at the end, but he goes the last 14 minutes without a three-pointer?JOHN CALIPARI: Well they switched and did some stuff.
Q. He took him away?JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah. And that guy can coach too.
Q. Like you said you guys are generating a lot of open shots and it’s guys like Tyrese, like Johnny, like Immanuel who are good shooters they’re just missing shots. Do you have any idea like why, like what makes you think that they’re just missing shots?JOHN CALIPARI: Probably mindset. Like you can’t really say like, well I come out every time I miss a shot. No, that’s not true. So then it become, at one point I was trying to get them to just say one word in your mind when you go to shoot it. Straight. Straight. Straight. Because if you’re thinking straight you can’t think I’m going to miss this too. I’m missing this, oh my God. So you just, then that worked a little bit. And then I was like, well, if there’s another word that will make you feel good before you shoot, say that word. Maybe it was a high school team you got 40 against. “Saint Alysosis” and then shoot it. Because the mentality of shooting, you cannot be afraid if you miss one or two, then pass on the next three, because you kill your team. But if I miss five in a row I’m embarrassed. Excuse me? Get in the gym then. The one way is get in the gym and master your craft. We got good shooters, if you watched us practice yesterday, we made 50 threes. They’re like -- and then -- and it’s not just missing, it’s hard right. You hear what I’m saying? It’s not di, di, di. No, it’s, like boom, boom, zing. I mean that’s what it is. So I just think, again, the toughness of playing here, got to be tough, got to be a dog. Every game is someone’s Super Bowl. Ohio State played their butts off today and they ground it out, they played to win a game and they played and fought and pushed and were big and I mean they played. And that’s what -- I told them, I said you could say it’s hard to play -- it’s hard to play against these teams that are trying to kill you. The other thing that happens I’m trying to explain, they will look at a guy like Tyrese and say, he’s a lottery pick? Well watch what I do to him. Then why am I not a lottery pick? They don’t get, well we’re exchanging basket, hi, how are you, good to see you. These dudes are fighting and this is the process we go through every year. When they figure it out, if I don’t fight I’m not making it. If I’m not a dog, if I’m not -- you don’t make it. And it’s not about exchanging basket, let me get more shots. No. Now you’re 1-12. What do we do now? So, but I’m not spending much time on it, we’re just taking a lot of shots and we chart every shot. And at some point you say, fall back on your training, you made 60 in five minutes, you made 67 in five minutes. You can’t make them when you’re wide open? But I think I got a good shooting team. Thank goodness for Nate today.
Q. What’s the team plans for Christmas and is it good to maybe step away for a few days?JOHN CALIPARI: Good for me, I know that. I don’t know if it’s good for them. Nine of them are already going to the airport, going separate ways home. Johnny’s got the shorter trip to L.A., he’s laughing, I’ll be home in 30 minutes. The rest of us got long flights. But I grabbed each of them individually and talked to them and just told them, maybe gave them a critique a little bit but I said, go have fun with your family, we’ll deal with it when we come back. We do this every year. The NCAA’s made it not an option any more. You got to take four days. Well we always took four days. I didn’t care what -- and I basically did it because I really cared about my own family. I wanted to be with my family for four days. I don’t care. I’m not playing over Christmas, I’m not, we’re taking four, five days, three days, this year we’ll take four, but now the NCAA makes everybody do it. I thought it was an advantage for us. Because we were playing teams that were given no Christmas break and they would play and get ready and I thought it was our advantage because of how we did it. So now it’s no longer an advantage.
Q. You talk about guys getting shots. E.J. just took four, first 17 minutes didn’t have a shot. What is he not doing to get more involved and why is he not shooting it more?JOHN CALIPARI: Well one of the things is you can offensive rebound and go get shots, so now you don’t have to worry about someone passing you the ball just say I’m going to rebound offensively. The second thing is fight in the post where we can throw it to you. Now it becomes so it’s obvious that you got to get it. Last game he begged me, like get me it in the block. Today we tried to run a couple things to him, couple of things to Nick, but it didn’t materialize because that guy worked harder than they did. You got to work harder than that guy to get open than he is working to keep you to not catch it. And it’s all what we’re going through. This is normal, it’s just, you know, you would rather learn from close wins, we had our chance today, we were down two with a few minutes to go. We had our chance. And then the same with Utah. Tie game with a minute to go, whatever it was. We had our chance. And we let it slip. So now we move on. Folks, I tell you all, have a merry Christmas, hope you get to enjoy your family and I hope you enjoyed the game today. Thanks.