The Kentucky Wildcats entered Saturday’s conference matchup against Ole Miss as a 9.5-point favorite.
Early on, it was clear that the Cats would be in for a struggle in front of their home crowd inside Rupp Arena. It was your typical SEC slug fest, but UK found enough in the tank to escape with a five-point win.
Abysmal three-point shooting was the story for this entire game. Making shots from deep continues to be a point of concern as this team rounds out conference play and heads into March. The more alarming stat today was the volume of threes taken. When shots aren’t falling UK should be aiming to get the ball in the paint, not taking contested threes.
Kentucky would finish 2/22 from long-range on the afternoon with the only two makes coming from Johnny Juzang and Immanuel Quickley. With the foul trouble and poor play of Ashton Hagans the offense could just never quite get rolling.
The Cats trailed Ole Miss at halftime and even found themselves down seven points late in the game. But UK would surge out to a seven-point run of their own and find a way to get a win, or maybe more importantly, avoid a bad loss at home.
After shooting just 1/9 in the first half, Immanuel Quickley would go on to finish 4/15 with 17 points, eight of those coming from the free throw line. Quickley remains Kentucky’s most consistent offensive threat, and he is obviously clutch at the line.
Here is what Coach Calipari and the players had to say after their 67-62 win over the Ole Miss Rebels via UK Athletics:
#5, Immanuel Quickley, So., G
On how to get past off-shooting nights…
“Teammates keep telling me to shoot. Coaches keep telling me to shoot. They instill a lot of confidence in me which helps me give a lot of confidence to myself. Really, that’s all just work hard, so when I miss one or miss ten like I did today, I think I was 1 for 10 today, you know, just keep shooting and one has to fall eventually.”
On the energy Ole Miss had…
“Definitely. Ole Miss is a really good team, really well coached and they play really hard. They have a guy who can get forty and he played really well today. They’re whole team played really well, so it was a really good game for us.”
On the team gutting out wins on off-nights…
“That’s what the tournament is about, you know, you want to be at your best when the tournament comes around. We hear all the stories about a bad shooting night in the tournament and you lose a game. Just knowing that we can still win games when we aren’t shooting, you know our defense can come through for us and that’s really what it’s about.”
#4, Nick Richards, Jr., F
On winning a game when the team is not at its best…
“I think it’s a great sign. You know, to show we just have a winning mentality, a will to win as coach would say. You know, we made like 2 for 22 from the three-point line today. I wasn’t my best in the first half and in the post. I wasn’t really my best the whole entire game, but we still came out and found a way to win.”
What you saw in the first half…
“I mean, don’t think they we’re forcing threes. I just think there were good shots, there were good open shots that we needed to make, they just weren’t going down. You know, it happens. You know, coach said we’re not robots, we’re not machines, it’s going to happen one game, and today it did.”
On whether the team is up for the physical challenge…
“I think all of us are up for a challenge. You know, for each position, one through five. Everybody is ready for it.”
On how Coach (John) Calipari called the game a rock right…
“I would say that is fair assessment. You know, there was a lot of battles down there, a lot of shoving guys, us fouling each other a lot. I’d say it was a pretty physical game.”
#3, Tyrese Maxey, Fr., G
On winning a close game…
“At the end of the day, Coach KP (Kenny Payne) always says fight, and do whatever it takes to win. I feel like this team did that tonight. I mean we had to get a couple crucial stops in a row, and that’s what we ended up doing.”
On the biggest takeaway from the game…
“A big thing for us today was knowing that we can still win while not shooting that well from the three-point line. I think we only hit two shots and they were all pretty much wide open good shots, we just couldn’t hit today. Knowing that you can still win the game like that, leaning on your defense and leaning on your post players. Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, Nate Sestina were all really good inside. That’s a big step for us.
On the team’s progression since December…
“Coach Cal (John Calipari) always says that we try to get better progressively, closer to March. Like I said earlier, it was big for us to win a game like that. Not being able to hit shots from the three-point line and throwing it inside to Nick.
On getting the ball to Nick…
“If Nick is open in the post, we are going to try to get it to him as often as possible. He is pretty efficient in scoring down there. He is a big player, seven foot. I don’t really think anybody can guard him. He gets to his hooks, he gets to his little drop steps. Like I said a couple days ago, I’m proud of him. He’s starting to grow up and telling us to throw him the ball when he’s open. That’s big for us.”
JOHN CALIPARI: We need to shoot more threes; do you still think so? Maybe we should shoot 30 and go 2 for 30. Here’s one thing I will tell you — I’ve watched the tape of Ole Miss, and I’m telling you that the job — they have done what they did to us to every team. They had Auburn down 19, and Auburn did some stuff, made it close, and all of a sudden they missed a couple shots. The last three games they won by an average of 20, and I told Kermit (Davis) after the game, he was coach of the year last year in our league, he may be coach of the year again this year in our league. Look, to me, coaching is when things go wrong, how are you now. It’s easy when you’re winning games and you’ve got — but when stuff goes bad, well, how do you bring people together, and what he’s doing is amazing. So, we didn’t — I don’t want to take away from them. When you shoot 2 for 23 — at halftime, folks, we were 1 for 13, and from the three we were 1 for 10. How are you in the game? Like I walked out and said, you know what, I’m happy we’re in the game, and then we have dumb fouls down the stretch and they make them, and we fight to win. Nick (Richards) didn’t play particularly well, EJ (Montgomery) didn’t play particularly well, Keion (Brooks) got bounced around until the last two rebounds, the biggest two rebounds of the game, and his two free throws ended the game. I’ll give you another one that’s great for him — I told him, it doesn’t matter, you have to play to win. You cannot be into you. You’ve got to be about this team. The other one was Tyrese (Maxey), everybody talked — well, how did he shoot it today. Did you see the last wide-open three he had? He bank-missed it left. There was no one near him, and it went hard left. Two weeks ago he’d have had his head back and ran back. Two weeks later, playing to win, he runs down the ball and shoots the lay-up that may have won the game for us. Versus I can’t believe I did that, I’m embarrassed. And the same thing, you’re down six or seven — who cares? Just play. Biggest thing I keep coming back to, these teams are trying to out-rough us, and we’ve just got to get lower and we’ve got to be prepared and just say we’re not going to accept that.
Q. Just talk about how good Immanuel Quickley was down the stretch.
JOHN CALIPARI: Again, he missed every jump shot, too, now, and then he made his free throws, he came up with balls. Tyrese dove on the floor for a ball. Nick made free throws. How many of you were sitting there saying, it’s a seven-footer, can’t make four in a row, and he makes four in a row, bam, bam, bam, bam. And that’s after they’re making every free throw, and we’re fouling people. Like I said, this was like a rock fight. Ended up being a great win. You know, do you shoot 2 for 22? I can’t imagine how many one-footers we missed, a bunch and still won the game, I’m happy as heck. Move on, next game. I’ll say it again, these kids are not computers and they’re not robots. This is not a fantasy league, this is not on a computer. This is real stuff. They don’t play great every night. But you can play to win. You don’t have to play great every night, and you can get pushed around for three quarters of the game, but the last part of the game you play to win. What does this team need me to do?
Q. These last seven games Ashton (Hagans) is shooting about 35 percent. I think he’s had four or more turnovers in five of those seven games. Is something wrong with him?
JOHN CALIPARI: He was better last game. He struggled a little bit this game. He got beat up a little bit, but he’s fine. He’s the least of our worries. Ashton is my point guard, and I’m with him. The one thing I do know, he’ll fight to win a game. He wasn’t great at the end of this game. Very rarely does he make mistakes at the end. Usually he will come up with the ball to steal the rebound to win the game. He didn’t today. He and I talked in my office about it, like hey, a lot of it’s just a mentality that we — he wasn’t playing well, and when he fouled out, we won without him, basically, and we were down — he gave him that foul near half court, but like I said, he’s fine. I’ll say this about him: He’s not a robot, either. He’ll have bad games. I don’t know of anybody that every once in a while is not going to cop a bad game. It happens.
Q. At halftime did you have to remind them again about Nick and getting him more involved?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, what I said is you’re 1 for 13 from the three and not one of them contested. You’ve missed nine one-foot shots. You’re 1 for 10 from three feet, and you’re in the game. You’re down two. So let’s go. I mean, basically that’s what I said. And then we didn’t want to throw Nick the ball because he couldn’t catch the ball. The guy muscled him. Couldn’t get him, couldn’t make it. If they blew on him he was throwing his head around, and I said no, we were going to go back to our guards. It’s not your day, Nick. Let’s go to the guards. Basically said exactly opposite of what you would have suggested, Jerry (Tipton).
Q. You talked about Immanuel wasn’t making shots, yet the last 11 minutes he scored 13 points for you and when he had to make shots he did.
JOHN CALIPARI: We had two breakdowns that he and Tyrese made shots versus the zone, and we just — we broke down, we didn’t screen. We end up having to just throw something at the rim, and they both went in. Again, a will to win. EJ on Tyrese’s missed bank wide-open three, fought for the ball, got on his back, and he threw it — that’s a will to win. He threw it to Tyrese, who makes the lay-up. As you go through seasons, all you want to see your team do is fight. They’re not going to be perfect. They’re not making every shot. They’re going to have bad shooting nights. You just want to see them fight, and I would guess our fans — just have to fight. Don’t get pushed around, just fight. And we’ve had teams come in here and make every shot, and okay, you lost. You know, it’s — crowd was great today. I didn’t want to go out to the radio, because I imagine there’s a hundred balls I would have to sign, but this has been — like this was one of our great crowds of the season. So, I am exhausted. Going to walk out there and sign all those balls that I — because I just think I kind of owe it to the fans who showed up for this one. Now we’ve got the rest of the road for us. Whoo. Whoo. Ellen (Calipari) says that. That’s Ellen’s word. Whoo.
Q. This thing you do every year with the young guys, how hard is it to push them past thinking my identity is tied to points per game? How hard is that journey?
JOHN CALIPARI: It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t stop, because what do you think they’re hearing when they get on the phone? What do you think Brad (Calipari) is hearing? Why didn’t you shoot more? From me. He’s my son. Why didn’t that guy pass it and this and — and if they take Brad out of the game, I go grab something to eat. I’m not watching that game. I could care less. I’m a father, too. I know what they’re hearing. To be man enough to understand and to not be delusional, know where I’ve got to go with it, it’s hard. But the guys here, the one thing they learn at Kentucky is to fight because everybody is playing us like that team played us. If you don’t learn to fight, you’ve got to go somewhere — it ain’t working. And the guys that learn to fight, they go from here, and all of a sudden everybody is talking about it.
Q. How good is Breein Tyree, and did your players play the defense you wanted to against him?
JOHN CALIPARI: We did, but he’s playing so well right now. He was scoring 30 a game for three games, and it may have been more than that. It may have been 37. But they were not just threes. He got them from twos, pull-ups, he got them from lay-ups, he got them from free throws, and he got them from threes. Like I watched tape, and I was like — how many did he end up with? 19? I’m so happy he scored 19. All we were trying to do was make it hard. Make it hard for him because he’s going to get points because he’s that good a player. He has really improved. Consistent, defending better. He’s really gotten better.
Q. Against the zone do you feel like you settle too often for threes?
JOHN CALIPARI: Probably, but Nick was so — Nick wasn’t really good in the post, and we did some stuff to go to him, but we did settle for threes. And if you know, I’d rather — this team I’d probably tell you let’s shoot 15 or 16. Let’s not get the 22. If we got to 30 we’d have lost this game. We almost lost it shooting 22.