Exactly one month after Kentucky and Louisville met on the football field at Kroger Field, the rivalry transitioned to their annual matchup on hardwood as the two teams met at Rupp Arena for one final blow of the decade.
As the ball was tipped on Saturday afternoon, Kentucky closed as -2.5 favorites. While the Wildcats were at home, ‘twas interesting to see they were the favorites over the third-best team in the nation (so far this season).
After a scrappy first 20 minutes, Tyrese Maxey led his Wildcats in taking a 32-24 lead at halftime over the Cardinals. Kentucky’s defense in the half court held strong, too, by limiting Jordan Nwora at just three points on 1-8 shooting.
In the second half, Kentucky came out firing with a 6-2 run to take a 38-26 lead. However, Louisville took an immediate timeout to follow suit with a 9-2 spurt of their own. In a defensive grind, every single point became significant down the stretch.
Both teams traded blows over the final 10 minutes and made clutch plays into the final seconds of regulation. With less than 30 seconds remaining, Maxey drove through the lane and finished between two defenders to score the go-ahead layup. Louisville’s Lamarr Kimble wasn’t ready to start the buses, though, driving hard and finishing over Nick Richards to tie it up with 10.6 seconds left in regulation.
On the game’s final possession, Maxey drove yet again but this time with a different result. His floater landed short and Keion Brooks rimmed out his put-back attempt.
In overtime, the Wildcats were plagued with foul trouble as Nate Sestina had fouled out in regulation and both EJ Montgomery and Richards had four a piece. Big time shots by both teams proved just how epic Saturday’s game had been, but in the end only one team could reign victorious. Seven straight points from Richards kept the Wildcats in contention and then ahead, 72-70 with less than a minute left in the first overtime.
Then, Immanuel Quickley and Maxey each swished a pair of free throws and Hagans threw down a last-second dunk to close it out for Kentucky, 78-70. Maxey finished with 27 points and seven boards, Richards recorded a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds with Quickley efficiently netting 18 points off the bench.
Kentucky also held Louisville star Jordan Nwora to eight points on 2-11 shooting, proving once again they can turn up the defensive intensity at any given time. In wild fashion, Kentucky’s win over Louisville comes as their second win this season over a top-3 team (former No. 1 Michigan State) and should bolster their ranking in next week’s AP poll.
Here’s what head coach John Calipari and a few of his Wildcats had to say after the game.
Q: On the effort the team showed and what it does for the team and specifically Nick Richards …
JOHN CALIPARI: In Vegas, and the game before that and I talked about it, and he came back and worked. We had two great days and, really, three great days. And what I told the team is that he has to get the ball, we got to get him touches. If we can get him touches by how we’re playing, we just got to throw it to him. And Nick, you got to fight for position, so we must throw it to you. We put in a couple little wrinkles for it. But the reality of it is, now we are playing. Proud of them, how he played in foul trouble and he still responded.
Got to get E.J. (Montgomery) playing. He made two great plays at the stretch that helped us win the game where he blocked a shot or came up with a ball. But he’s got to do more of that. That’s got to be who he is. And but Ashton (Hagans), Tyrese (Maxey), Immanuel (Quickley). Nate (Sestina) played OK. He came up with a really big play in the first half, a two-handed rebound that he kicked to Immanuel for a three.
Keion (Brooks Jr.) fought. Didn’t play Johnny (Juzang) and Kahlil (Whitney) a whole lot because the game didn’t dictate it. I was coaching to try to win the game, not just try to get guys in. But those two are integral parts of what we’re going to end up having to do this year.
Q. When you talk about fight for position, when he gets, when Nick gets 10 rebounds, and I think he drew 10 or 11 fouls often trying to fight for that position, and then to come back and do what he did with the four fouls when that offense
JOHN CALIPARI: How about he made free throws late. Immanuel makes them, Tyrese makes them. We showed a will to win. I’ll give it to you, we’re down, does anybody really listen to what I say in here? Like, so do you know when I’m talking about one-handed rebounds and one-handed catches, I go nuts, correct? For 11 years now, this is my 11th, this is my 77th year here. It’s dog years here, you go by sevens. So that being said, Ashton reached in with one hand to grab that ball and they threw -- it was a tie game -- and we grabbed the ball, and they throw it ahead and make a 3. Now it’s three (point lead) and I have to call a timeout. Those are big plays that we fought back from. I mean, we went in a stretch where we couldn’t get a basket, couldn’t make a shot. We were trying to find offense, but let me say this, Louisville’s one of the best defensive teams in the country. In the country. Their numbers, the way they rebound, the way they guard the 2, the way they guard the 3, they’re one of the best defensive teams in the country. I hate to tell you, they’re one of the best offensive teams in the country, too. The way they score the ball. But I was proud of being down three and fighting to come back and win the game.
How about, you got to walk in your huddle on a tip-in that didn’t go. Like, ohh ugh. And telling them, look, guys, I’ve been here before, we’re fine. That is what it is. That was a great effort. I mean, this is all learning. I come back to, we have lost some games this year that, a couple-bucket games, each of them. But learning how to win and making the plays that you must make, it’s kind of like you telling them, that’s fire, don’t touch it. That is fire, don’t touch it. They’re going to touch it. And that’s part of the learning. And so you can’t make that kind of play now. Well, I’m going to show you I can make it. And that’s what we have been going through. But it’s a process. I’ve said all along, my team is good. I like the way we shoot the ball. We haven’t shot it great, but we had open shots today and guess what we did? Made ‘em.
Q. About Nick. How significant was it for him to do this -- to prove he can do this against a quality team and a really good front court?
JOHN CALIPARI: Demonstrated performance is how you build your own confidence. If you build your own confidence no one can take it away except you by being arrogant. I say to stay humble and hungry. If you get arrogant, you’ll go right back in the hole you were in. But demonstrated performance is how you build your own confidence. You miss five, six shots in a row: You’re great. You’re the best shooter ever. Well, that doesn’t build their confidence. They know they just missed six and two of them were air balls, and you’re telling me I’m great? That doesn’t work. So, the same with Nick and his ability to fight and create a position for himself and really have an impact on the game, which was big, even with the foul trouble.
Q. Can you talk about the impact that Immanuel and Keion had defensively for you today?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, Immanuel was -- he ends up guarding Jordan (Nwora). That’s a hard cover now. Kid never stops. He can really shoot, he’s long, athletic, he can get to the rim. The guy that is, they don’t talk enough about, but has an impact on the game beyond what you guys probably see, is Dwayne Sutton. He just beat us to death. If he had 10 rebounds, six of them our guy was in front of him and he ran around him to go get them. And they were big plays. And the other thing he did, he drove for layups. Like, you know, I mean, he had an impact on the game. He’s a terrific player.
Q. You mentioned two things: You mentioned coming back to the huddle after the missed tip-in. How were they in the huddle after that? Number two, if there’s one thing you hope they took away from this game, that they learned, what is it?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, here’s what I say when I’m coaching. I always, my mindset, we’re winning this game. That’s how I coach. Until the game’s over, oh, we lost, now let me go watch the tape and figure that out. But my mindset is always we’re going to win this game. I may not be saying it to them but that’s what my mind is and that’s where I need them. Like I said, when we went, hey, the tip-in didn’t go, fine. Let’s keep playing, this is a ballgame. Let’s go. You can get these guys. So hopefully they’re -- and I tell them what I just told you. I’m never thinking, we may lose this game, oh, my gosh, if we -- No. We’re going to win this game. Now how are we going to win it. And then if we, they hit in a shot or something happens and we don’t win, OK, I’ll look at the tape and figure stuff out. But they were good. I mean, they’re young so you just got to keep on it.
Q. If you look at the way Tyrese played today it was almost like it was sort of an encore from how he played out west. How impressed were you with the way Tyrese played today?
JOHN CALIPARI: He played good. He played good. We put him and Immanuel in. We were struggling to get a basket so we were just going through two guys. And again, it’s because they’re really, really good defensively. And so we had to move people around and put those two in positions to make baskets, and they did. But he played good. The one play drove me nuts is Nick is seven-foot and puts his head on the rim and he threw a lob below the net. Late. Like a big play. Like, what are you -- throw it above the square. The kid will go -- throw it to the top of the backboard. He’ll go get it.
Q. Leading up to this game you kept on saying, it’s still December. But now that it’s over, how much did your team need a win like this?
JOHN CALIPARI: You guys that have watched us over the years, we go through this every year. There’s probably many people here that thought we were going to lose, and they wanted to be at this press conference hearing what I had to say when they could say it’s over. They’re not going to be in the NCAA tournament. They’re a NIT team. Look, I don’t buy any of the stuff when they say we’re great or they say we’re bad. I don’t. I coach my team. What I’m looking at is where can this team go. What if we lost on a half-court bank shot? Oh, we’re done. What? That’s a top -- that may be the No. 1 team or Ohio State, No. 1 teams in the country, and you’re right there on the court with them and that means by losing, you stink, you’re not even in the NCAA tournament. Wait a minute, maybe we’re 4. If they’re 1 and 2, maybe we’re 4. 5. Well, you lost to this team. Yeah, but if they’re that good, what are we? When we play good. So I don’t buy into any of that, I mean, they said it yesterday, I said, What about Michigan State? Oh, they’re not, that’s a nothing win. What? Well, let’s see where they will be at the end of the year. I mean, the whole thing is, is your team getting better? The thing about us is individuals have to get better. Today, Tyrese got better. Ashton, a little bit undisciplined but still did pretty good. Immanuel was good. We got to get E.J. playing better. He’s got to play better. He’s got to be a better version of what he’s doing. Keion, Kahlil, Johnny. All I’m worried about is how do I help guys get better, and then get them to buy into this team. You’re so concerned about you, you can’t play for us. So then you look bad. Just worry about us and we’ll all worry about you. Then you’re going to have four guys on the court worried about you. But if you’re out there -- that’s all I’m doing. And this was a great win for us. And you need wins so they understand. Like, we’re going to go twice on Monday -- we’ll go tomorrow, they’re going to get some stuff in film and individuals. And then we’ll go twice, really, three times on Monday, and three times on Tuesday. And I’m mad that I have to give them off Wednesday.
And when you start doing the stuff that we’re doing, two-a-days and come back on Christmas Day, you got to have some reward or it’s like, why are we doing this? So that, for me, that’s what this was.
Q. In the second half the technical that you got for being out of the box, what happened there? What did the ref say to you?
JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know. I wasn’t looking down. My wife said she was going to take pictures of the other bench because he was out. But I said look, guys, just so you understand, I don’t care what an official calls as long as you make the same call down that end. So if you call us on a carry or a moving screen and I see one down here, that’s when I lose my mind. I don’t care what you call. Call fouls every time down, on both teams. Just keep calling them. This crew did a good job today. I was on them. If I see this called, you better make that call. I’m never saying, I don’t think that was a block, or, I don’t think that -- I don’t do that. I’m like, whatever you call, you call down that other end, and I’m good. How about this? Be bad. Both ways. I’m good with that. You’re missing this and missing that and missing this, I don’t care, as long as you’re not missing this, missing this, missing this, now I got a problem. But I probably stepped out of the box. But the officials are being told that and flops, you know, when guys throw their head back. Those are supposed to be, those are flops. That’s what that means. You know, all that kind of stuff. But must have had an impact on the game when I was out, so.
Q. Do you need a get-back coach?
JOHN CALIPARI: Oh, they have a get-back coach? See that’s the problem. They have so many guys on their staff and they’re telling me I can’t have another staff guy. They got a get-back coach. They got a get-out coach, a get-back coach, a guy walks them to half field. I need a guy. I need an assistant coach that walks me to the radio show now. That’s what I need.
#3, Tyrese Maxey, Fr., G
On this win being considered a “Christmas gift”…
“Great Christmas gift. Proud of my guys. We came back on Christmas morning. By Christmas night, we were practicing. It was worth it though, we got the W. Everyone played well. Now I’m ready to get in the lab for Mizzou.”
On being hot from the floor after struggling with his shot …
“Last time I talked to the media, I told you I was not going to stop shooting. I believe in myself. I put the work and time in. If I keep doing that, the shot is going to fall. It fell tonight.”
On Nick Richards playing well …
“He hooped tonight. From blocked shots, made big free throws, big layups, I’m proud of him.”
On winning in front of his family …
“I am very excited. It was my dad’s first game (this season) and it was an amazing feeling to see them over there (in the stands). My mom, sisters and uncle are here also. It felt amazing, I can’t wait to spend time with them.”
#4, Nick Richards, Jr., F
On what got his emotions fired up during the game …
“It’s a rivalry game. We were emotional from warm-ups and we felt the energy from the crowd. You can just tell we were ready for this game.”
On his recuperation during his break from Las Vegas and how it translated into his performance tonight …
“I really just needed that break Three days break that I just recharged. I was definitely more focused when we got back. I had a lot more attention to detail at practice. Tried to be a good leader to my teammates and to the freshman, just trying to be a better overall player.”
On his performance with four fouls and being in foul trouble …
“We were just playing smarter. I was really just trying my best to just play smarter. I noticed a lot when they were driving they were lowering their shoulders on me, but I just tried to take charges on those and hoped they weren’t called blocks. It was a 50-50 chance. I wouldn’t say I was as aggressive with four fouls, but I was going for as many blocks as possible. It was my fault and I shouldn’t have let that happen but were just happy we got this win and we just want to celebrate.”
On was he nervous when he had four fouls and the whistle was called during the game …
“Oh, I was really nervous. I was hoping it was going to be called a charge but if he called a block, I don’t know what would have happened.”
On does this feel like his best game in a Kentucky uniform…
“I wouldn’t say it was my best game. You know, I would probably say that this is the most we have ever fought as a team. There is a lot more games we are going to play when SEC starts. This Saturday for us, we play a really good team in Mizzou. They have a really good big man and a really good point guard and we are just going to prepare for those guys this week.”
#5, Immanuel Quickley, So., G
On how badly the team needed this win …
“I think we really needed it. It feels good to get a good win like this, for sure. Everybody, I think, played their hearts out. Everybody that got on the court played as hard as they could. Coach had a great game plan for us and we just wanted to come out, fight and try to get a win.”
On the game plan …
“Really, the game plan was really just to not let (Jordan) Nwora beat us, try to make everybody else beat us. Really just to fight. You can talk all the Xs and Os you want, but, Kentucky-Louisville, it comes down to who’s going to fight more, who’s going to get those tough rebounds, those tough plays down the stretch.”
On whether he is the “defensive stopper” now…
“I mean Ashton (Hagans) is really that guy. But I’ll be more than happy to try to get a Defensive Player of the Year (award) myself. But nah, Ashton’s that guy for us, what he does. And he’s really bleeding into everybody else. When he’s defending, I’m just trying to defend. So you know, he’s really rubbing off on everybody else.”
On his success guarding Jordan Nwora …
“Coach said whoever is guards Nwora the best is playing the whole game. I just wanted to play in the game, so I said, ‘If I get on Nwora, I just want to really make it hard.’ He’s a really good player, but he just had a tough night.”