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John Calipari & Wildcats recap win over Abilene Christian

The Cats shine in their NCAA Tournament debut, but they’re just getting started.

Aaron Gershon - Sea of Blue

With PJ Washington watching from the bench, the Kentucky Wildcats began its journey toward a possible ninth NCAA title with a convincing 79-44 win over Abilene Christian on Thursday night in first-round action in the Midwest Regional at Jacksonville’s Veterans Memorial Arena.

Washington, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, injured his left foot in last week’s SEC Conference Tournament semi-final loss to Tennessee and has not practiced in several days. UK Coach John Calipari has referred to the injury as a “sprain” and the sophomore All-American sat out on Thursday as a precautionary measure. His status is day-to-day for Saturday’s second-round action.

Kentucky, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, was led in scoring by Keldon Johnson who finished with a game-high 25 points. Reid Travis, a 6-foot-8 post player, was dominant in the paint with 18 points and nine rebounds. Tyler Herro finished with 14 points, scoring 12 in the first half.

The Wildcats scored the game’s first eight points and raced out to a 26-10 lead on a Travis stick back as Kentucky controlled the boards with a 44-17 advantage. Freshman EJ Montgomery finished with a game-high 11 rebounds after starting in place of the injured Washington.

The Wildcats went to the locker room with a commanding 39-13 lead, setting a new school record as Abilene Christian’s offensive futility marked the fewest first-half points by an opponent in an NCAA Tournament game.

With another freshman-dominated roster this season, only sophomore Nick Richards entered Thursday’s game ever playing in an NCAA Tournament game. That list also includes Reid Travis, a graduate student, who played in 82 games at Stanford between 2014 and 2018 without an NCAA appearance. Abilene Christian, representing the Southland Conference, also was playing in its first NCAA Tournament in school history.

Kentucky, 28-6 on the season, is now 9-0 in first-round games under Calipari.

After the game, Calipari and select players met with the media to discuss the win and updates on Washington’s status for Saturday’s second-round matchup. Here is the recap of postgame comments, courtesy of UK Athletics.

JOHN CALIPARI: You know, our defense made it difficult. I told Coach Joe, what a year they had, winning their tournament, winning their league. That is so hard, especially when everything rides on that one game. And he’s done a -- just turned it around.

But I’ll tell you what was special: I went to get a pizza today. You won’t believe that. And a guy comes up to me and said, “I used to coach at Abilene Christian, and Coach asked me to come on the trip.” And he’s an older gentleman. I apologize, I didn’t catch the name. But I told Joe before, I said, that’s more impressive to me than anything. I said, too many in our profession forget where this all started, and the guys that came before us who made the path for our families to be able to do what we’re doing and be paid obscenely, and it’s been guys like that.

So I told Joe that of all that’s happened, that impressed me more.

Q. Reid, you waited five years for this moment. I’m curious what it felt like.

REID TRAVIS: It felt good. Like you said, it’s been a long time. This has always been a dream of mine playing college basketball, is to be in the tournament and advance deep in it. This is the first step. I’m just glad I can enjoy it with my teammates.

Q. I’m curious, Tyler, since you have a potential match-up on Saturday, certainly not a given, with Wofford, have you heard much about Fletcher Magee just because of his shooting prowess? 500 threes over a career is just obscene.

TYLER HERRO: Yeah, I’ve watched his highlights. I’ve heard he’s a very good shooter, so I think it would be a good match-up. Both teams that we’ll potentially play are really good. So we’re going to have to prepare for how we play.

Q. As a follow-up to that, how do you feel like your team does when you have the occasion to defend somebody who’s really proficient from three-point range?

TYLER HERRO: I think if we just stick to our assignments and whatever the game plan that the coaches give us, as long as we stick to our assignments, I think we should be fine.

Q. In a game like this, what keeps you guys motivated to keep the pressure on throughout the entire time, maybe Keldon talk about that?

JOHN CALIPARI: Can I say something? He didn’t keep the pressure on. He can tell why the rest of the guys did, but he didn’t quite --

KELDON JOHNSON: Just knowing Coach Cal is going to stay on us regardless. Regardless of the score, if we’re up 20, 30, or even if it’s a close game, if we miss an assignment he’s going to be all over us.

JOHN CALIPARI: Not missed shot, how about you break down defensively, don’t grab a rebound, throw the ball to the wrong guy on the other team. Yes, I’m going to -- you missed plenty of shots and I don’t say anything, so don’t say that.

Q. He did say “missed assignments”.

JOHN CALIPARI: Oh, you’re right. I thought he said missed a shot.

Q. Reid, what was it like not having PJ in there today?

REID TRAVIS: Obviously it’s tough not having PJ with us. He makes our team better all season. We feel like we play off of each other really well, but I feel like with my injury a couple weeks back, guys had to step up and fit into different roles and really just build their confidence.

Unfortunately he’s out and we’re happy to have him back when he gets healthy and all that, but we had guys build their confidence over the last couple of weeks with me being out, but I thought it was good. Guys stepped up and we were able to play good minutes.

Q. Tyler, coming into the season there were concerns about like your defense and stuff, but since then you’ve made major strides throughout the season. What have you done to improve that? And what’s the next step in your development?

TYLER HERRO: I think the coaches have been on me since day one, just in practice every day. My teammates push me to be better defensively, so just continue to get better every day.

Q. John, can you elaborate a little on PJ’s condition and availability going forward?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, first of all, the option was a boot or the cast. The cast would speed up the healing, so we said, put the cast on. Whether they’ll take it off tomorrow to check it, I don’t know. If they don’t, he won’t play Saturday, and then they’ll probably try to take it off Tuesday or Wednesday of next week to see how his foot feels.

Everything was negative as far as the X-rays, but they just want -- it was a sprained foot, so they just want to keep it calm, so that’s what it is.

Q. Coach, before the game you talked about ACU being a good three-point-shooting team, 40 percent. Tonight you hold them to about 22 percent. Is that a victory in your game plan tonight?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, the one that we were worried about, the two guys were 5 and 15, and when you look, my man pulled up, he went 1 for 9, and there were a couple open. After we really guarded he took some tough ones, he missed ones that you all said, “He never misses that.” But it’s hard when you’ve got long players.

And then their center, Hayden, went 2 for 6, and we left him like twice, and he missed a couple open ones. But we’re a team that tries to get you to drive because we can block shots. We want you to come to the rim. We don’t want you just shooting threes.

Q. John, you’re down one big already; what goes through your mind when you see Nick get undercut and go down?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, the two practices we had including the practice down here, very little contact, mainly because if we get another guy hurt, our staff is going to have to start playing. So you just say, we’ve got to do conditioning, we’ve got to do individuals, we’ve got to script five-on-0, but you can’t really go at it. So when Nick went down, that’s why I said, “Move your arm around.” He did. “You’re all right, rub some dirt in it. Let’s get going. Let’s go.”

But yeah, we’re down to seven, eight guys, and it makes it hard.

Q. You guys win the battle of the glass tonight 44 to 17. How happy were you with that stat line?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we talked about it. We thought we had an advantage there mainly because of our size, and Reid’s strength, and it was one of the things we said, if we’re going to beat these guys, our rebounding has got to be really -- we’ve got to separate from them in that, so I thought we did it.

Q. Coach, just in a game like this, how important was your start to never really let ACU feel like they were in it and to kind of get on them early?

JOHN CALIPARI: In this tournament, it’s really important. What happens when teams are desperate, they’ll do stuff they don’t usually do, and if you let a team hang around, something stupid, crazy, like what just happened, can happen.

But I’ll tell you, after the first game, you know, every -- somebody told me almost every game today was like a hard-fought game. I don’t really watch the games. And I expected this to be some of that unless we got to a good start, which we did, and we got out of the gate really guarding and blocking shots and did a pretty good job and shot a high percentage.

Q. Seton Hall and Wofford are playing right now, so what do you feel about a potential rematch about Seton Hall, and what will you and your team do differently to get a different outcome this time?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, if PJ doesn’t play, we’ll have work to do with either team, and let me tell you, there’s no given that the Seton Hall, Wofford, they’re both like -- Seton Hall already beat us. You talk about a well-coached team of veterans that just march through that league, and that league, when you talk about Greensboro, we played Greensboro. You know, they had like four teams in that league that could beat anybody in the country, and so we know how good that team is, too.

I’ll go back and watch this game tape, and I’ll wait to see who’s going to win, and then I’ll start watching tape on that team.