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John Calipari and Wildcats recap win at LSU

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Kentucky secures win No. 21 and remains in first place in the SEC.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being ranked as the 10th-best team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats were -2.5 point underdogs at LSU on Tuesday evening. The Wildcats, while having beaten some of the NCAA’s best, have basically been a rollercoaster this season. Thankfully, Kentucky brought their better half to LSU.

Currently leading the SEC standings, Kentucky overcome a slow offensive start to take a 29-28 halftime lead. Their offense further progressed throughout the second half, expanding their lead over the Tigers. A consistent game of tug-of-war quickly turned in Kentucky’s favor, as their second-half shooting was lights out and built a double-digit lead with less than 10 minutes to go. The Wildcats cruised along until about the two-minute mark, when LSU then hit a few long distance shots & forced a few turnovers to climb back into contention.

‘Twas too late for a LSU comeback, however, as Kentucky’s lead was simply too large. With the 79-76 victory, the Wildcats move to 21-5 on the year and have taken a firm grip on the lead in the SEC.

As he’s been all year, Immanuel Quickley was smooth and collected making plays for the wildcats. The sophomore guard led all scorers with 21 points on 7-12 shooting while also handing out a team-high six assists. All of Quickley’s points were significant, but his best play of the night came with less than two minutes to go when he found Nick Richards for a cutting layup as the shot clock expired to sustain Kentucky’s late lead.

Outside of a few arrant turnovers by Ashton Hagans and Nate Sestina, everyone for Kentucky played relatively well in the win. In addition to Quickley, Kentucky also received double-digit scoring from Sestina, Richards, Hagans and Tyrese Maxey.

Unfortunately for Hagans, though, he exited the game with a left leg injury and failed to return. Instead, he made his way back to the bench with a large ice pack visibly taped to his left thigh. His injury will be well-worth monitoring as the Wildcats prep for Florida on Saturday afternoon.

Here’s what head coach John Calipari and a few of his Wildcats had to say following the win.

John Calipari

On giving a recent book to Nate Sestina …

”It’s funny. I give them a lot of books. Then I ask them, ‘Did you read this?’ I’m trying to get them to understand that they leave us and if I can leave them with one thing, it’s read. Tweak your mind. Be curious. Most of the stuff I give them is what I think is pertinent to them. So sometimes it’s a parable. In that form it’s easier for them to read. That book wasn’t. I told him he needed to read it because there was a girl that was a college player that got injured and then kind of got demoralized when she wasn’t playing well, and then how she built herself back and how she ended up having a great year. I said, ‘It’s a great story for you to read.’

”He’s a great kid. I’ve been telling him he’s got buzzard luck. Can’t find anything to eat and nothing will die. I told him I’ve been praying for him. I just wanted him to breakthrough. You want all these kids to play well. Johnny (Juzang), he didn’t even know. Johnny Juzang at the end of the game was why we were able to win the game. You say, ‘What’d he do? He didn’t score.’ Because he had a calmness about him taking it out of bounds and we could throw it back and he knew where to go with the ball. Not Keion’s (Brooks Jr) fault. I had never played Keion in that position. Then you say, ‘Well, why did you have him take it out?’ Because I wanted a bigger lineup in and he was the only one left to take it out. That’s when I said, ‘Johnny, get back in there.’

On getting something out of Nate Sestina …

”At halftime I said, ‘We’re up one and we cannot make an open shot.’ We missed 10, like, open, wide open and you miss them. I’m like, ‘We’re up one and I’m whistling, dancing, skipping going to the locker room. We can’t make a shot and we’re still up one?’ In the second half we made the shots, which is why we got 14 or 15. And then Ashton (Hagans) gets hurt and they start pressing us and we have people in positions we’ve never had and we threw it all over. But you have to give them credit. They didn’t stop. They’ve done this all year to everybody.”

On Hagans’ status and what changed with the guards in the second half …

”We had an idea. There are a lot of times that I’ll watch the game from a year ago, unless the coach wasn’t there, but when I watched the tape, I saw that they did not play Ashton in our building. I kind of came in with the idea that they’re not going to play Ashton again. They put (Trendon) Watford on him and basically gave him space and just said, ‘We’re going to help.’ That’s why I had told Ashton if they do that, ‘Shoot the ball, man. You’re shooting the ball great.’ It’s hard though to make shots when they’re not playing you. You may think, well that’s easy. No, you’re looking like, ‘They’re not even guarding me.’ But he made two 3s in the second half.

”I thought Immanuel (Quickley) was great down the stretch again, just making baskets and 3s. When Nate made that one 3, I went right back at him and he makes another 3.”

On Hagans’ injury …

”I didn’t ask him. I did tell the team, ‘Boy, we played well without Ashton.’ [Laughter.] That will get him back fast.”

On differences in shooting in two halves and Quickley saying those things just even out …

”Did he tell you it didn’t average itself out last game? We were 2 for 22 last game. So, sometimes it averages itself out, sometimes it doesn’t. When this team shoots it like that, I don’t go crazy. As long as you defend and are in the game. They’re not machines. These kids are not computers. This isn’t a game where they’re on a TV screen. There’s a lot of things.

”Right now, I’ve got to get Tyrese (Maxey) down the stretch playing better. I mean, he’s bank missing shots that could end the game. Like, bank missing. We’ve got to get him to where he has a different mentality. That means you can make them but when that point in the game comes you’re not comfortable yet. So, we’ve got to talk him through it, say, ‘OK, what are you thinking? What’s your mind saying to you? We’re saying we want you to score, are we wrong? We want you to the free-throw line, and you went 1 for 2 and gave them a chance. It would have been seven.’ But he’s, again, he’s a freshman that we expect him to be a junior. That’s what it is where we are.”

On what he likes about his team and what he wants to improve …

”Got a will to win. That means you’ve got a chance. I like that we’ve got a big guy. I like that we’re playing three point guards. But when you’re playing with a shortened rotation, EJ (Montgomery), Nate, Keion and Johnny got to add to the game. You’ve got to come in and add. You can’t ever take away. All you’re doing is stepping in and adding to the game. EJ had some foul trouble today and did some good stuff. He and Keion and Nate and Johnny are probably the key to where this thing goes. And they don’t have to be crazy out of their minds, but you’ve got to add to what’s going on.”

On blocked shots making LSU timid …

”I always say if you have no post presence your team is a fraud. And that doesn’t mean the guy has to be 7 foot, but you have to have someone in there that can do something both ways – scoring, dunking, something and also making them shoot more jumpers than driving layups. Now, in the first half, they shot a bunch of layups. We weren’t playing the pick-and-roll very well.

”Let me say this, this team, they’re never out of it. I watched. To be honest, up a bunch and the game gets close. They’ve been down and they come back and win. I watched the Texas game. They’re up big and all of the sudden it’s a close game and they pull away. I’m glad we’re done playing them. Let somebody else deal with this.”

On if we should talk about Immanuel Quickley as an SEC Player of the Year contender …

”I like to have five and six guys have a game with 25. And the reason is you get in the NCAA Tournament and you made need somebody to go crazy to win a game. So, Nick has had 25, EJ has had 25, Ashton has had 25, Tyrese has had 25. Immanuel hasn’t, but he’s playing so steady that I think in his mind, ‘If I have to go get 25 I can, so I’m fine.’ So that means you’ve got five. I’d like one more guy, one of those other three to be able to step up and have a big game. You just want to be able to go into that tournament knowing that you have a team full of guys and you don’t know who can go for 25. It makes you more balanced and makes you even a better team.”

#1 Nate Sestina, F, Gr.

On if felt jinxed trying to get to 1,000 career points …

”I don’t know what it was, but my teammates and my coaches have just been on my case about trusting my training and believing in myself and knowing everything is going to pay off. I’ve spent a lot of time in the gym, in the weight room, on the treadmill, staying in shape and just trying to stay mentally sharp. I’ve actually been reading this book that has been helping me out with mental toughness and mental training. So just kind of believe in that and just trusting that it’s going to come to fruition eventually, and tonight I guess it did.”

On what the book he’s reading is titled and if this game was a relief for him …

”Ten-Minute Toughness. It’s a mental-toughness training thing. And it’s a big-time exhale. It’s been frustrating because I haven’t been able to do anything defensively either. So for me, it’s not just about trying to get a bucket or anything like that. It’s, ‘I’ve got to do something defensively to help my team,’ and I’ve been struggling with that as well. Tonight, like I said, everything kind of came to fruition.”

On who recommended the book …

”Coach Cal actually did. I’m supposed to be a senior leader and I’ve been playing like I was a freshman or I was a high school player. So, he recommended it for me and it just kind of goes through breathing exercises and focusing in on visualizing things before the game. It’s actually crazy, because it talks about if you’re at the free-throw line, can you visualize yourself feeling the ball, your routine, taking breaths. It talks about this 15-second breathing where you can breathe in for six seconds, hold for two, exhale for seven. You don’t have a whole lot of time at the free-throw line, so it’s like as you get fouled, do it when the ref calls it, start your breathing just to calm yourself down. It’s been a big help. It helps you visualize things. Talks about a personal highlight reel in your head, talks about the things you do well, you gotta visualize that game speed and do the things you do well. And get rid of all your ‘don’t’ statements: Don’t foul. Don’t do this. Get rid of all those and talk positively – and say it out loud, because if you think it, you think negatively, you’re going to do it negatively, but if you say it out loud positively, you’re going to do it positively.”

On if seeing Immanuel Quickley do all that Zen stuff and having success connect with him more now …

”He’s my roommate on away games, too, so that’s big time. He and I talk hoops, talk God, talk family. He’s been a big help, and he actually sent me a thing last night about Kobe Bryant talking about mental toughness and just being in the right spot to hit a big shot and trusting that it’s going to go in – and if you miss it, then you’re going to make the next one. So, I missed that one in the first half really far right from 3, and in my head I was like, ‘All right, next one is in.’ And shot the next one and it went in, next one went in, next one. Stuff like that, it really starts to carry over and it helps out. And he (Quickley) has been a big help. We play one-on-one at night. He beats me, but don’t let him fool you: I did beat him in the mid-post four games. But no, he’s a big-time help.”

On rebounding …

”Yeah, I haven’t been grabbing a whole lot of rebounds but tonight before the game Coach (Tony) Barbee and I were joking around and I always bump into him when I’m leaving the locker room. He said, ‘Don’t let that be the last time you hit somebody until that buzzer rings.’ So I kind of took that to heart, made it a plan of emphasis for me to make sure I’m hitting guys on rebounds and just going after the ball. If I don’t get it, just smacking it out for someone else to get it or diving on the floor. That’s the kind of guy I need to be for this team to be successful. Tonight was a really good stride moving forward to do that.”

On Nick Richards’ impact on the game …

”For any team driving into the paint — we have really good defenders that are guards, so if you get by our guards and you go in for a layup thinking you have an uncontested layup, you have a seven-foot center with a 40-inch vert coming at you too. He’s really good at walling up too. He’s not always just blocking stuff. A lot of times he’ll jump straight up and you’re putting it straight into his arms and he’ll just grab it. But it’s really intimidating. It’s intimidating in practice when you’re trying to go up for a layup in practice and he throws it off the wall. I think for any guard going in it’s an intimidating thing.”

On being his toughest critic …

”It’s kind of how I was raised, to just — I’m hard on myself because I want to be great. I want to be good at the things that I practice so much. When you do these things and you’re not doing them well, it’s frustrating. Especially for us as athletes. But just trusting and believing that eventually it’s going to happen. Working hard every day, staying diligent about everything you do, eating right, staying in good shape and working on those things. Coach talked to me today in the huddle and said you’re averaging 60 makes in our one shooting drill, so shoot the ball. To hear somebody like that tell you to shoot the ball and that they’re confident enough for you to make it is big.”

#5 Immanuel Quickley, So., G

On the guards having a rough first half, a huge second half and what changed …

”I think I airballed my first shot, so that kind of threw everybody off. But nah, this team is really tough. No matter what happens in the first half, I think we’ve been a really good second-half team all year. That’s just a credit to everybody’s toughness, all the drills we do in practice, the toughness drills, 1:30 runs that you’ve gotta make 15 touches. So, it’s just a credit to our hard work we’ve been doing.”

On how a team goes 2 of 10 from 3 in one half and 7 of 8 in the other …

”I don’t know. The numbers gotta balance out eventually. The other night, I think we went like 2 for 22 last game, so we’ll probably go like 20 for 22 next game or something like that.”

On if making shots is contagious …

”Absolutely, especially when everybody is shooting the ball, everybody getting good looks. When Nate was hitting shots, I think I was more proud of him than he was. I was running down the court just screaming like a little kid. It’s just great to see everybody else doing good.”

On getting shaken up a couple times …

”Knee to knee. I just kind of banged knees. But the second one, I got really shaken up because my hip’s been hurting a little bit these past couple games – nothing crazy – and I fell on my hip again. It’s all good.”

On if he’d be excited to play point guard if Ashton Hagans can’t play next game …

”I have not heard anything about Ashton’s injury. If he doesn’t play, that’s a big piece that we will be missing. Obviously Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC. I don’t think I would be excited about Ashton being gone, but just looking forward to helping my team win. But we need Ashton. He’s a big part of what we do offensively and defensively. He hit a lot of 3s today, so I’m happy for him. He’s just a really big part of what we do so we need him.”