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John Calipari & Wildcats recap wild win in Starkville

“We held onto the rope and our hands are bleeding right now.”

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

With a history of slow starts this season, Kentucky coach John Calipari wasn’t about to take any chances as the Wildcats rolled into Starkville on Saturday for a Noon (CST) tip-off against SEC foe Mississippi State.

The result was an early 7:30 a.m. shootaround that got the juices flowing early en route to a 71-67 victory at Humphrey Coliseum.

PJ Washington once again stepped up to the challenge as he scored Kentucky’s first eight points of the game as the Wildcats rolled to a 40-25 halftime lead. Washington finished with a game-high 23 points. Keldon Johnson chipped in with 13 points, while Tyler Herro had 12.

After trailing 17-15 early, Kentucky went on a 25-8 run that included three pointers from Herro, Johnson and Ashton Hagans, while controlling both ends of the floor against a frustrated Mississippi State offense that was 0-for-4 from three-point range and missed numerous lay-ups in the first half.

The second half proved to be a different story.

After Washington hit a three-pointer with 16:32 remaining, the Cats took a 49-31 lead, its biggest lead of the game, and looked ready to cruise to victory.

However, that 18-point lead quickly evaporated, as Mississippi State went on a 17-2 run of its own to cut the lead to 51-50 on two free throws with 8:41 left in regulation.

The Cats responded as Washington scored in the post, followed by a lay-up and two made free throws by Hagans to extend the lead to 57-50 with 7:06 remaining. Johnson made two free throws at the 5:08 mark to push the lead back to double figures at 63-53.

Mississippi State would fight back behind the play of Quinndary Weatherspoon, who had 14 second half points, after the All-SEC performer hit a free throw to finish off a three-point play to cut the lead to 70-67 with 1:17 left.

On Kentucky’s next possession, EJ Montgomery came up with a huge offensive rebound to eat up some clock and Johnson came up with the defensive play of the game, a blocked shot that resulted in a loose ball and a final made free throw from Hagans to close the scoring.

Kentucky, ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll, is now 20-3 (9-1 in SEC play) and hosts No. 21-ranked LSU on Tuesday at Rupp Arena.

After the game, Kentucky Coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to discuss the team’s big win in Starkville. Here is a recap of postgame comments, courtesy of MSU Athletics.

John Calipari

Q: Did this game give your team a test of under adversity?

JC: “First of all, they [Mississippi State] are a top-20 team, a NCAA team and team that will advance because of how they play. They are physically tough, and they have great guard play. The first half won us the game. If we hadn’t played that way … we came over at 7:30 a.m. and had a shoot around. I never do that. I knew how hard this game was going to be. We may have run out if gas because I did that. We had two other games at noon, and we lost both. That’s why I did it. But, I like the fact that we hung on. They didn’t stop. They were making plays, shots, drives and not playing scared at all.”

Q: Does a two seed in March seem about right, where your team is at right now?

JC: “I don’t know. I’m not worried about anything except my coaches, my team, helping these guys get better and holding them accountable. I held them accountable after the game. I went right around the room, I said, ‘If you want me to tell you everything is all good, it isn’t.’ I went down to each guy. Not yelling, screaming or cussing, I wasn’t. I told them ‘You’re here because you want me to keep it real.’ This is real. We won a game, and it’s unbelievable how you finished.”

“We’re getting better at finishing games off. We really are, with how to play down the stretch, to get fouled, make a shot and what we need to do defensively. But, there’s spells in the game where our decision making appears to be ‘I’m going to do this play’ versus ‘What are we trying to do.’ We ran a play a couple different times where a couple guys just broke them off and did their own thing. We’re not that kind of team, but big three by Tyler Herro – How about that shot, that three? That was a dagger.”

Q: How was your team, defensively, with Quinndary Weatherspoon?

JC: “Part of it was in the second half, he was beating us on the bounce. So our guys weren’t confident enough to go up and play him. Then he got three’s, and we were going under pick-and-rolls, which you can’t do at him. We keep asking why we were doing it. Well, the kid got going, and we weren’t confident defensively enough to say, ‘I’m going to push up and play this guy.”

Q: Did the lack of defense surprise you since your team has been so good on that side?

JC: “No. With this team, it’s a noon game. We’re so young. Believe me, at halftime, I said that [Mississippi State] would have two runs in them. They’re going to come after us twice. We’ve got to withstand those two runs. We withstood the first one, at the start of the half, when they were scoring every basket. We scored two. The other one, we held on to the rope, our hands are bleeding right now. We just held on.”

Q: What did you like most about the offensive execution?

JC: “We were getting in the lane. They were finding each other. We had great spacing, and I just think Mississippi State turned it up a notch. We knew they’d be desperate, because they had LSU beat, dead to rights. LSU, how they won … I had to watch the game twice to say how’d they lose this. I knew they would be desperate in this game. They have a right to be. You guys know this is a top 20 team.

“I was thinking about this while I was changing – how about this tournament we’ve got in Nashville? We may not even show. Why even go and just get beat up? It doesn’t matter who we play, everybody is going to be good. It’s going to be war, war, war.

“Then, we’ve got to go to the NCAA Tournament. All the teams playing after the first round are in. They’re that good. Ben [Howland] has done a great job with this team, and I’m glad we’re done with them. I hope we don’t have to see them in the tournament.”

Ashton Hagans

Q: What did Mississippi State do in the second half to make the score closer?

AH: “We messed up on the defensive end when we switched. They took that chance to go at it. Number 2 [Lamar Peters] and number 11 [Quinndary Weatherspoon] both took down some big-time shots. That’s really all I saw in the second half.”

Q: What did Coach Calipari say to the team to get you guys back in the game to go on a 12-3 run?

AH: “He just told us to stay focused and to keep doing what we had been doing. We needed to push the ball up the court and get it to something. They kept trying to blow up the dribble hand offs, so we just had to run a screen out on top. Other than that, he was just telling us to get back to what we were doing and try to get a stop on the defensive end.”

Q: How physical was the game?

AH: “It was physical, but we knew that was going to happen. They lost at home a couple days ago so we knew coming in that it was going to be a dog fight. We just had to be ready. We had physical practice the past couple days to get prepared for this game and try to come out with a win.”

Keldon Johnson

Q: Can you talk about the defense strategy on Quinndary Weatherspoon in the second half?

KJ: “We know he’s a good player coming into the game. I knew I had to be on my P’s and Q’s guarding him. I did a really good job in the first half. In the second half, he hit some really tough shots. He was scoring the ball, and we just had to stay locked down. We knew he was a good player, and we knew that he could hit shots.”

Q: What did Coach Calipari say to the team to get you guys back in the game to go on a 12-3 run?

KJ: “When [Mississippi State] made that run, we knew that they were going to make a run. We talked about it during halftime that we knew they were going to have a run. Down [at] home, they’re going to be shooting and playing with confidence. We just knew that once they made that run, we had to come together even more, stay focused, stay together and react to it.”

Q: Mississippi State scored 42 points in the second half. Did you think it was just them making plays, or did you think there were some break downs on you guys’ end?

KJ: “I saw a little bit of both. They hit some tough shots, but I think that we could have picked it up a little bit more on our defensive end. We’ll make that adjustment and get right to it. We’ll put it forth in the next game.”