It came in front of a crowd of 24,467, the third largest at Rupp Arena. In addition, the 17-point win proved to be the greatest margin of victory over a top-ranked team since the Wildcats beat St. John’s 81-40 during the 1951-52 season.
Once again, PJ Washington made the case for SEC Player of the Year honors, as the sophomore was unstoppable in the post with a game-high 23 points. Keldon Johnson also turned up the heat on the Vols with 19 points, including 13 in the opening half to help give the Wildcats a 37-31 halftime lead.
Tyler Herro finished with his first career double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, while Reid Travis also chipped in with 11 points and eight rebounds.
After controlling the first half, Washington open the second frame with a quick basket, followed by a Herro three-pointer that extended the lead to 11 points at 42-31. Ashton Hagans would then cap a 14-0 UK run after finding Johnson for an easy basket at the 16:33 mark to give the Cats a 51-31 advantage. Kentucky’s biggest lead came at the 13:23 mark on a jump hook in the paint from Travis as the Wildcats led by 24 points at 60-36.
Kentucky, ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll, appeared to enter the game with a chip on its shoulder after losing a heartbreaker on Tuesday to LSU on a controversial play to end the game.
With the win on Saturday, the Wildcats are now back in the conference race and remain in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Currently, UK is projected as a No. 2 seed a could possibly end up in the South Regional at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center.
Tennessee, 23-2 (11-1) and LSU 21-4 (11-1) now share the top spot in the conference standings with six games remaining. Kentucky is second in league play with a 10-2 mark and will face the Volunteers again on March 2nd in Knoxville. Kentucky, now 21-4 overall, plays at Missouri on Tuesday night.
After the game, Kentucky Coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to discuss an incredible atmosphere on Saturday night at Rupp Arena. Here is a recap of postgame comments, courtesy of UK Athletics.
Q. The bench was tremendous tonight. Talk about how they came in and really did a lot in the ball game.
JOHN CALIPARI: What I want Nick (Richards) to feel is everyone in the state or any fan, anyone in the BBN, wants him to do well. They do. Our fans went crazy for him today. He played great in the first half. And in the second half a foul and a foul, three-point. Come on, man, like we want you in that game. That jump hook he has, unstoppable. His ability to block shots, his ability to go get rebounds that other players can’t get because he’s seven feet tall. So I thought he did good. The difference maker in the game for us was (Reid) Travis. Now his numbers, 11 and 8, and you can say what you want, but he was a beast against another beast. Like it negated that. You’re not going to dominate us. Which and again, by him being able to do that PJ (Washington) didn’t have to play him. So now PJ could go and do what he does. I told PJ you need a hug, my man, after that game. Because he’s in the tub right now, he’s on I.V. again after this game. But our bench, Immanuel (Quickley), and I tell you who is unbelievable is EJ (Montgomery) right now. But I’ll say this. PJ’s playing so well. Now I got to figure out do I just play them together because the kid, you know, in nine minutes he goes for four points and six rebounds. In nine minutes. And he’s active and he’s blocking shots. He’s really -- proud of him. And he’s got a great attitude and so does Nick. Nick’s not blaming anybody, he’s not, oh, you take me out every time I make a mistake. He ain’t saying any of that. This is just, I want my chance to get in there and play.
Q. How close was PJ to the best player in the country that you’ve said he could be?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, again, he’s doing some good stuff. I mean, you are looking at him now making shots and skilled with the ball and stuff that a year ago he couldn’t do. Making free throws, playing, sustaining effort, not floating and coming in and out. I mean, but it’s conditioning.
The same thing with Ashton (Hagans). Ashton today played like he had been playing. For two games he went downhill and then it affected us the last game. And in this game he came back and -- what we did after practice on Thursday, I called the guys and we went in the locker room and on the film I said, I got to show you some video. And it was a video of our North Carolina game. Do you remember how Ashton played that game where he was going crazy? Diving, tipping, fell into the stands, the bench and then came down and stole the ball. And what I basically said is we watched nine clips of him. Now we don’t have this guy anymore. I don’t know where this guy went, but if we ever got him back we would be really good and they all laughed. And we watched all these plays and said, that’s who you were, now you chose to change. We don’t know why, but you chose to be somebody different. So he was good today.
And I thought Tyler Herro, double double, 13 rebounds. He was fighting for balls and Keldon scored the ball. We had a good, it was a good effort. And let me tell you, they are the No. 1 team in the country. They are. They missed some shots they normally make. We gave them a chance where we had them down big and all of a sudden you turn around and it’s 15, 16, 12. And I could see them making shots and beating us. And that’s why I was going crazy on some guys, because they’re looking at me like why are you going nuts? We’re still up 12. We were up 24. Like what? But they’re young kids and they don’t seem to get that. But it was good.
And I know how good Tennessee is and that’s why I told our fans, enough of the they’re overrated. They’re not overrated. Probably underrated. People don’t realize. When you have a team like that that’s been together, that their assist-to-turnover ratio is off the charts, when they create shots for each other, like they do, when they’re that physical with an inside and an outside game, where they don’t rely on threes. They only shoot 18 threes a game, like us. We shot 13 today. They shot a bunch more today. But on average they’re shooting 17 or 18. They’re not winning shooting three, they’re winning playing basketball and they’re unbelievable defensively and we got them today, but we got to go up to Knoxville. Do we have to go up to Knoxville?
Q. Anything different tonight, last two games you had a big lead and then lost in the second half. That didn’t happen tonight. You built it really well. Anything change there?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, we lost to LSU. So I hit them right after the game with LSU and just said, hey, that was a tough loss, but you know what, we needed it. Because our team is changing, we’re not the defensive team that we have been. We have individuals changing how they were playing when they were successful. We need to get it back. We need to go back to what we were, and you know what, sometimes you got to get knocked in the head to know that. So the loss to LSU probably helped us win this game.
Q. You normally say with the way your teams are you’re not going to have a dominant scorer. So what has made PJ over these last seven, eight, nine games, what’s made him become your dominant scorer and what’s he doing different?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, one of the things is we just went at him. We’re just like, go. And he also, we like him at the top of the key shooting some threes because he can make that shot. But the whole thing, again, no lapses, none, get to where you’re a vicious competitor the entire time and then sub yourself. Today he subbed himself. And I hate to tell you he got cramps. What does that tell you? It’s probably harder than he’s gone all year. That’s why you cramp up. Who else cramped up? Ashton. That’s why you cramp up. You went harder now. Like Kenny Payne was saying, we probably need to get seven percent more conditioning to bump this up so that we can play in a bunch of games -- when you have back-to-back like this on a Thursday Saturday, a Friday Sunday, and have you this kind of game and you got to follow it up with another one. Whew, I’m not sure we have that right now.
Q. Your team shot 67 percent from two-point range in the first half. Keldon (Johnson) was on fire. But they were still within six at that point. What message did you send to your team at the break that led to this game cracking wide open a 14-0 run to start the second half?
JOHN CALIPARI: It wasn’t that. Again, we turned it over two times. I looked at them and said why would you do that? I’m putting you in and you’re giving them a chance. We were up eight points or whatever we were up and all of a sudden it went the other way. But I thought we finished the half and did a good thing. And then we just showed them some defensive stuff.
Look, Tennessee beats you shooting twos. That’s how they beat you. They beat you offensive rebounding. They beat you in transition. So they get four or five baskets, six baskets off of each of those things and that’s how they beat you. Our biggest thing was transition. We did not want to give them anything deep. I imagine they probably had about six points in transition. We probably had about the same. Pretty good for not knowing, huh?
Q. How crucial was that 14-0 run to start the second half for your team to come out of the locker room?
JOHN CALIPARI: Against the No. 1 team in the country, it’s a big deal. And again, the ball dropped, the ball was punched loose and my man hits that three in the corner. Like, if they rebound it, we don’t, we’re not on a 14-0 run. And that’s an energy effort play. And I keep telling these guys, in most cases they’re being evaluated that way, like what kind of motor do you have, what kind of energy do you bring, how do you defend, does this kid tough enough to go rebound. That’s why I was happy for Tyler today. This is a big game for Tyler. Forget about baskets made and shots. It was a big game. He got 13 rebounds.
Q. What’s it like to see PJ Washington come back for a second year and improve as much as he has?
JOHN CALIPARI: You know, what makes me happy is when I’m hearing people call me and say, Cal, he’s the most improved guy in the country. Like he is it. And a big part of that was conditioning and toughness and focus. And when you understand that it’s not going to be easy and there’s no easy road, that I’ve got to compete every day, you probably got it licked because you’re competing against yourself. You’re trying to conquer yourself. PJ finishes first in every run we do right now. Every run we do, Kenny Payne’s screaming and yelling, don’t let him finish first and guys are trying to chase him down and he ain’t letting them. Now, let me explain. He wasn’t first last year. But he wasn’t last because there was about six of them back there.
Q. Hamidou (Diallo) tonight jumped over Shaquille O’Neal and won the NBA?
JOHN CALIPARI: Wow, they told me that. How about that. Yeah, I heard. I heard of the that was great. Eric (Lindsey) told me in there. So proud of him. He jumped over -- was Shaq on his hands and knees?
Q. Standing up.
JOHN CALIPARI: No. It -- Shaq was standing straight up? Wow. I got to see this.
Q. (No microphone.)
JOHN CALIPARI: Really? That’s my man.
Q. Was there anything specifically Tyler was doing to be able to get all those rebounds tonight?
JOHN CALIPARI: Attempting to rebound. We keep attempts, focus -- at the end of every game that’s the first thing I look at is what were their attempts. And I told you, PJ started going down, down, down, as he started scoring more thinking, I’m a scorer, I’m not a rebounder. And we had other guys the same thing. That happens to Keldon at times. He’ll be at a 53 percent, well, if you’re at 53 percent you’re only going to get three rebounds. If you’re at 80 you got a chance of getting eight or nine or 10. But if you don’t attempt -- now this is one that’s probably hard for you to understand -- if you don’t attempt to rebound, you’re not going to get the rebound. How about that? Like, you don’t attempt, you’re not getting it. So, we’re charting attempts to get guys to make an effort to go get -- sometimes it just bounces to you. Unless you don’t attempt to rebound. Attempt is just effort.
Q. Do you have any idea who on your team leads in attempts?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s a percentage so I don’t know if we keep it that way. I just know at the end of the game they should all be -- on defense it should be a hundred percent and on offense it should be about 85, especially the fours, the fives, and the threes, those guys should make, they should be in the 85, 90 percent attempts. Every time the shot goes up they’re attempting. And no chest on the back on offense. In other words, he tries to block you out, no, he’s going to get, I’m moving, he may get my arm, but he is not getting it, I’m not laying on his back. No chest on a back. And that’s what EJ does. That’s why EJ gets his hands on all these balls, he has an effort and attempt to go get it.
Q. (No microphone.)
JOHN CALIPARI: We’re two hands is a big deal as you know for us. And again in a game like this where they’re good at tipping balls you better grab it with two or you’re not bringing it in.
On making sure that the team did not let Tennessee take the lead…
“I think we just executed. We just kept emphasizing down the stretch to stick together. We kept making plays on offense and giving the ball to PJ (Washington), and we let him go. So, PJ was outstanding again tonight.”
On getting 13 rebounds…
“Coach just emphasized that we need to get in the rebound category tonight because they are really big down low. So, I just tried to rebound the best that I could.”
On the mental mindset of a double-double…
“You just have to fight. You have to be tough, and learn your style, and get your rebound.”
On how you feel after the win…
“Pretty good. Got a big win, you know.”
On the message Kentucky sent to college basketball tonight…
“We are just doing what we do in practice every day. We listen to our coaches and that’s what we do, we are just doing what we do in practice.”
On your hot start and on PJ playing well…
“Yeah, I mean that’s every game though. I mean you can always go to him and I was definitely fine with it. I started off hot and he got it going, and I was just like take it and run with it, and do what you have to do man. We believe in everything he can do, and we trust him out there to do what he has to do.”
On what this win meant to the team …
“It means a lot. It shows everyone that we can still play with great teams in this league and in this country. To have an atmosphere like that was great. There was one point in the first half I couldn’t hear. I was trying to talk to Ash (Ashton Hagans) and I couldn’t even hear myself. This was my dream school growing up, so just to be here is a blessing for me. To go out there and beat a No. 1 team is just more than I could ask for. I’m just so proud of my teammates because of all the hard work we’ve been putting in. Everybody has been doubting us, but we feel like we deserve this. We’re excited and just trying to get ready to play Missouri.”
On Hagans performance…
“We need him on the defensive end, he’s our best defender. The best part about our defense is that he starts it, and without him we’re not really good on the defensive end. So, for him to pick up on the opposing guards like that is just great for us.”
On Kentucky defense…
“We really studied our game plan and just tried to force them to take tough shots and make Grant Williams pass the ball, we tried to double him every time and we did a great job with that. Towards the end we kind of let go a little bit, but we still fought back.”