In what may have been the final home game for Kentucky standouts PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, the trio combined for 45 points to lead the Wildcats to a hard-fought 66-57 win over the Florida Gators on Senior Day at Rupp Arena. All three are currently projected as first-round NBA draft picks and will most likely leave the program in June.
Herro, a sharp-shooting freshman from Wisconsin, led the Wildcats with 16 points, while Washington scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half and finished with a game-high nine rebounds. Johnson and Ashton Hagans, both freshmen, each finished with 14 points.
Prior to the game, Jonny David and Reid Travis, a graduate-transfer, were recognized as part of Senior Day festivities. Travis, the team’s starting center, did not play on Saturday and has been out of action since February 19th when he suffered a right knee sprain in a win at Missouri. David, a Pittsburgh native, got his first career start and played the first minute without scoring.
Despite struggling with turnovers in the first half, the Cats trailed just 31-30 at the break and turned up the defensive pressure to take control of the game over the final 13 minutes.
After trailing 40-39, Washington scored in the post and added a free throw to complete the conventional three-point play to give the Wildcats a 42-40 lead at the 12:45 mark. Kentucky would then hit six free throws to extend the lead to 48-42 before Herro scored on a floater in the lane to push the lead to 50-42.
Washington extended the margin to 52-42 on a baseline fade away and Herro capped a 15-2 run with a driving left-handed runner in the lane for a 54-42 cushion at the 7:30 mark. Kentucky was 8-for-8 from the free throw line over the final two minutes and finished the game 26-of-32 (81.3%).
With the victory, the Wildcats have now finished the regular season 20 games above .500 for the sixth time in the John Calipari era. Kentucky, 26-5 (15-3), is now expected to be the No. 2 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville.
Kentucky finished in a tie for second place in the SEC with Tennessee, who fell to Auburn on Saturday to drop to 15-3 in conference play. However, the Cats won the tiebreaker and will be the 2 seed in the SEC Tournament.
After the game, UK Coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to discuss the final home victory of the season and preview the upcoming SEC Tournament. Here is the recap of postgame comments, courtesy of UK Athletics.
Q. Can you just talk about the decision to go small and if you go out of it, exactly what you were looking for?
COACH CALIPARI: Yeah, we’ve been working on it, and Mike (White) went small. Let me just say this. You know, Florida is an NCAA Tournament team. They won at LSU. They have had like three losses. You’re like, how did this happen, you have to watch the tape. Mike’s done a great job.
I looked at their roster, their starters, and they start three freshmen. You talk about a young team that he’s done a fabulous job with, but they are an NCAA Tournament team and I told our guys from here on in, that’s all you’re playing. Every team is an NCAA Tournament team and you can’t have lapses like we had in the first half.
You have a turnover, give up a basket, another turnover and all of a sudden it’s like an eight-point swing. You just can’t have one guy or a team do that, and so -- but I’ll tell you this: The way we finish the game, the will to win, the play for our team, the last four minutes of the game, Tyler (Herro) made some unbelievable plays. We made some shots. And again, we’re a good free throw shooting team.
Q. You mentioned Tyler. Did you like that he was attacking the basket? Is that something you’re trying to get him to do?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, he wasn’t guarding in the first half. And he wasn’t guarding because he was going around the screens like it’s easier. And it’s stuff that we don’t teach, like why would you do this, and again, these guys, it’s normal stuff, there’s slippage and they revert back to high school stuff.
In the second half I thought he did it. Look, we took seven 3s. We could shoot more but this is a game we just said let’s keep attacking the basket which put us on the line a ton. It you know, we guarded their 3s but they missed some open shots but I was happy with how we played.
Q. Every year in December, you always say it’s December, I don’t want my team looking like March. It’s March. How do you feel about where you are now?
COACH CALIPARI: We’ve got to get some 45-minute, 35-minute games and we haven’t had them in the last couple weeks. Maybe it’s because Reid is out. I know -- do you guys know Reid Travis is on our team? You guys do know that, right?
But you know, now, you stick him in there, and maybe that lapse doesn’t happen. So hopefully in the tournament stuff, he’ll be ready.
The kids, their families are in. We considered telling them to all -- we were going to let them go home for two days today, tomorrow, Monday, and come back on Tuesday, like we do at Christmas and you all know when I do that, my teams go and smash people after that because they are fresh, they are alive. Problem is Reid didn’t want to do it, P.J. didn’t want to do it, Tyler didn’t want to do it.
They didn’t want to go back. They said, give us off, and if we want to do work with the individual coaches, we’ll do it.
Their families are in town. I told them, stay at the hotels with their families and they are having meals with their families. This is, again, it’s a young team and it’s been a long season. It’s been a fast season but it’s a long season, and I need their energy, I need them to be fresh mentally and physically, not tired. You know, we try not to overwhelm them with video. We try not to overwhelm them with long practices. But we’ve got to have energy.
Q. You’ve never been shy about not liking the SEC Tournament but does possibly playing Tennessee on Saturday instead of Sunday --
COACH CALIPARI: No, that’s not what just happened. The most important thing that happened: Instead of playing at 9:00, we’re playing at 6:30. I’m not the guy any more that’s like at 9 and 10 at night, I’m dancing and moving. That time, I’m a little tired.
I’m very happy that we’re playing at 6:00. I can do this at 6 o’clock. (Laughter) 9:00 is a questionable time for me.
Q. This is senior day, obviously, but when you have a guy maybe like P.J. and I know decisions aren’t made --
COACH CALIPARI: You have a couple, this may be their last game. I kind of mentioned it prior to the game.
Q. Do you tell those guys, hey, soak this in?
COACH CALIPARI: I did. I didn’t say that but prior to the game, I said, “Guys, this is our last game in this building this year.”
And then I kind of let them know, looked around like, our last game in this building, and I think they understood that whether it’s P.J. and you know, we had a bunch of guys in there that are going to have opportunities to do what they choose to do. And that will be the end of it.
I was happy for Jonny (David). You know, happy for his father. His father is missing the state championship game -- not championship, but state playoff that he’s coaching on his phone. He’s like, coaching back.
I said, what are you doing?
He said, “I couldn’t miss this.”
To see his dad on out there -- Joey -- I coached at Pitt. I was an assistant there at the time when Joey was playing for Pitt. A heck of a player in his own right.
Q. You mentioned Reid. Are you worried about him or is he about where you thought he would be at this time still?
COACH CALIPARI: I’ve absolutely stayed out of it. I really haven’t even talked to the doctors because these kids know their bodies, and I don’t want him or anyone to think that I’m pushing him to play if he’s not -- if he’s not right.
I just say: “How are you feeling?”
”I’m getting better.”
I’ve said that maybe twice. How you feeling?
”Good.” I walk away.
Here is what’s good, it’s not an ACL. He sprained his knee. He’s going to be fine. Would I like to have him on my team right now? But not at any expense of his, no.
We’ll do fine. If he plays, I’ll be doing back flips. If he doesn’t play, we’ll just figure it out.
I’ve done back flips for, on a trampoline maybe.
Q. You just finished up your 10th regular season here at what you profess is your dream job, so first of all, congratulations, we should all be that lucky. But now as you turn your mind to the postseason, with everything that’s at stake, a possible No. 1 seed, getting rode back on the court, is your attitude about the SEC Tournament any different this year?
COACH CALIPARI: No, because they say tournaments really don’t matter so if you lose in the first round, we still should be whatever seed we were, because there are going to be some teams that do that. Why can’t we do that?
Well, you’re not them, that’s why. What is that about?
What our seed is now, basically they said that’s your seed. The tournaments aren’t that big a deal.
They are; they matter, when they matter.
Q. After the Arkansas game, you said that the team kind of takes your lead. So are you at all concerned that maybe they are not going to be as enthusiastic going into the tournament?
COACH CALIPARI: No, listen, for some reason, I’m working out every day; I eat right until 5:00, then I’m done, that’s it. Then I -- you think I’m going to the electric chair, okay.
But up until 5:00, I’m good, so I feel good and you know, my frame of mind is good and they will go where I take them. My teams are always young. They will go where I take them. There are times I’m getting a little bit tough on some guys. I got tough on EJ (Montgomery), the last play. Come on, now. And then you miss that, fumble a ball and then give up a dunk? No.
If this is a real game and it’s a three-point game, we lose because of that? I can’t accept that. You have to hold them accountable. Yet, how did he play today? He played good. Played good.
How about Immanuel Quickley? He’s not even the same player now. So it’s nice.
And then what I told them prior to the game, you don’t play up to the team you’re playing. You’re going to play to your training and the process. Just understand what we teach every single day, and you move to that versus trying to move to where they are, the opponent. We’re just going to stay with that.
So no, they will be fine. But again, this thing, when it’s one game, none of us know. I would say this will be four brackets and we’ll be in by far the toughest, you all know that. And it will be -- they are right, they will call it murderer’s row. We’re used to it.
Is there anybody undefeated? Because that’s probably who we play first game. No, it was the second game we played them, the one year.
Q. Other than that last play with EJ, were you pleased?
COACH CALIPARI: First half he missed five one-footers. I told him, do you understand you could have had 25 points today? He missed five one-footers. I said, you understand that demoralizes us because we’re getting you the ball where you can make baskets and he just missed a bunch. In the second half, he made them all. Made shots, made free throws, rebounded balls, played good defense. We need 40 minutes of that now.
Q. This notion that the guys don’t want to go home right now; is that a reflection of all the way back to the Bahamas and when he came out at midnight to practice?
COACH CALIPARI: It’s a different group. This is a group, because of their mentalities, they picked the right school, which is, you know, we live here, we train here and we go to class over here and it’s all -- and I like to go in the gym at eleven o’clock. Well, you can’t, there’s volleyball in there. What?
Well, you can go in at two in the morning if you want and take managers and go in and they will rebound for you.
These guys are gym rats and love being in the gym. They are curious and want to get better. Really, that attitude is dragged a couple players that normally wouldn’t be that way, to be that way and now their skill set is going like that, I say this, you know, how many teams in the country, are improving right now? And I said, let’s be one of those, there’s not many. They can hold on and let’s finish this out, limping home, may one game good, play one game bad, and let’s try to just keep getting better for each weekend.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports
On shutting down Florida in the second half …
“We just knew we had to pick up the intensity and make a statement coming into the second half. We needed to get some separation.”
On what the statement was …
“I think they got too many easy shots in the first half. Too many back doors. Lackadaisical cuts to the basket, second-chance points. We knew we had to fix that in the second half if we wanted to win.”
On getting more rebounds …
“We knew that we definitely had to be more aggressive and impose our will.”
On the SEC Tournament …
“I don’t really know anything about it. I’m kind of new to this.”
On what changed in the first half compared to the second half…
“They were just beating us up down low and wanted it more than we did. The second half we just came out and fought and I think everyone did a great job. The bigs, me, EJ (Montgomery), and Nick (Richards) and the guards did a great job as well.”
On what it means to get Reid (Travis) healthy…
“Obviously, we need Reid back. He’s a tough guy and is great on both sides of the ball. He makes shots, he rebounds the ball really well, and he’s a leader for us. We’re missing him a little bit and we can’t wait until he gets back.”
On John Calipari telling the team to soak it all in…
“Yeah, this was my dream school growing up and to come here and develop in my two years has just been special.”
On if they realize how big a No. 2 seed is in the SEC Tournament…
“Yeah, coach talked about it as soon as we got to the locker room. We definitely know how big it is and we can’t wait.”
On difference between first and second halves …
“I think we just brought more energy. We were leaving our assignments in the first half, so it was just communicating better and bringing more energy in the second half.”
On postseason mindset …
“They said it’s going to be tougher. Now, we’re playing better teams, so we’re just bringing it every game. We can’t have lapses. The coaches said we have to bring our game the whole 40 minutes.”
On SEC Tournament …
“I heard there’s going to be more Kentucky fans. Fun experience, but we obviously want to win the SEC Tournament.”
On playing Tennessee again …
“Should be fun. They got us back a couple weeks ago, but it will obviously be a tough game. Taking it game by game.”
On effort driving to the basket …
“Just trying to be the aggressor and getting to the rim. They kind of played my three-point shot all night, so I couldn’t get it off. So, whatever they give me I take.”
On Travis Reid’s absence …
“He’s a huge part of our team, obviously, leadership-wise. We want him back, but of course we don’t want to rush him back. It’s whatever is best for him. We are going off of what he says. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. He can make a tremendous impact. Without having him on the floor, it’s a little different. He does a lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, you know, just getting it inside with the big plays. So, we want him back.”