Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley has been a model of consistency this season, flying under the radar, as his teammates have climbed up NBA draft boards and national ‘Watch Lists’ for some of college basketball’s most prestigious awards.
That all changed on Saturday as the sophomore guard had a career-high 26 points, putting him in the mix for SEC Player of the Year, as the Wildcats defeated Florida 65-59 in front of a sell-out crowd at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center.
Quickley is currently UK’s leading scorer at 15.7 points per game and remains the team’s best three-point shooter at 40.5%. He is also one of the nation’s top free throw shooters, hitting 130-for-142 for 91.5% on the season.
Freshman Tyrese Maxey also came up big for the Cats on Saturday, flirting with a triple-double as he finished with 13 points and seven assists and seven rebounds, respectfully. Ashton Hagans, questionable at game time with a bruised thigh, came off the bench after the first TV timeout, and finished with seven points. Nick Richards, playing on a sprained ankle, also added nine points and six rebounds.
With the score tied at halftime, Florida raced out to a 40-33 second-half lead at the 17:06 mark before going cold offensively, failing to convert a field goal for almost seven minutes. After a goal tending call on Richards, the Gators extended the lead to 44-41 before Quickley went to work, hitting three consecutive three-pointers to give Kentucky a 50-44 advantage with 11:20 remaining. Richards followed with a dunk off an offensive rebound to push the lead to 52-44, UK’s biggest lead of the game.
Quickley struck again with 1:34 remaining when he hit a three-pointer as the shot clock expired to give UK a 61-53 lead and plenty of momentum to close the game. However, Florida’s full-court press made things interesting as the Gators cut the lead to 61-59 after tipping in a missed free throw with just 19.1 seconds left in regulation.
Maxey and Quickley would then take control from the free throw line as each calmly drained a pair of foul shots to seal the victory. The Wildcats were a perfect 10-of-10 from the line.
The No. 10-ranked Wildcats are now 22-5 overall and 12-2 in the SEC, two full games ahead of second-place Auburn, who will visit Rupp next Saturday. The Wildcats travel to College Station on Tuesday night to face Texas A&M at 7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN.
After the game, UK Coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to talk about a hard-fought win over Florida and the race to a possible SEC regular season title, courtesy of UK Athletics.
Q. Now that he’s in the 25-point club, can we talk about Immanuel Quickley as an SEC Player of the Year candidate?
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, he needs to have — you ready? I’m with IQ. I mean, he’s playing. You know, he’s playing.
But in the first half he dribbled past three or four shots, and that’s why I grabbed him at halftime. I said, If you don’t shoot open shots I’m putting Johnny in, because I know he will shoot every shot.
You don’t, and if you miss them, get in the gym tonight. I don’t know what to tell you. But you can’t be a team that wants to play deep into March and have guys passing up wide open shots to take a tough shot because they want it to look harder in case I miss. If I miss I kind of get embarrassed, so — you can’t have that mindset, and today we didn’t.
Biggest block of the game, EJ. Big rebound, EJ. Big play where Tyrese made two free throws. Big. The out of bounds on the side, it was just we didn’t seal the guy. We just ran from them. You got to go body to body. The baseline out of bounds is on me, so we got to come up with some stuff. I’ve used that for 30 years; it ain’t working with this group.
Now I got to come up with something different. If I’m playing us, I’m putting a man on the ball and I’m pressing. So now, let me coach a little bit and figure some stuff out.
But we got a great group of guys. It was dangerous what I did with Ashton, because if he got hit right on that spot, he’s probably out three games. Not real smart. But he said, I can do this, I’ll play. I didn’t start him either half, but he performed.
He still — you know, again, we have six turnovers by Ashton. Come on. Come on. And one at the end where he is dribbling two or three guys. What are you doing?
So got to clean some stuff you up. Look, Florida is a good team. They had won five in a row. They came out in the first half or second half and came right at us. I was going to call a timeout and I said, nope, let them play through. Let these guys figure it out.
That’s when your team is empowered. They don’t stop; they let go of the rope; they start figuring out how they got to do it themselves.
Q. What’s the difference in Tyrese, who scores 25, 26 points early versus tonight that he has 13 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, two steals?
JOHN CALIPARI: He’s driving the ball. He’s driving the ball. And, again, he still has to learn — like John Wall said, Why aren’t these guys getting by anybody? You’re opening up the court, you’re staying open. I know what you’re doing. You’re saying beat your man on the dribble, but he charged them.
Just for all you basketball bennies — probably have none in this room — but when you bounce it, you got to bounce it by the guy. So boop, boop, and there. Now in any contact is a foul. You ready? Boop, boop, boop, and you bounce it here and start running. It’s a charge. It’s a charge every time.
And, again, when you’re in high school you can get away with that. Each level you go, you can’t get away with it. You got to be able to get the ball out and by the guy. If you can’t, either you’re not confident with the ball, or you just have a habit of bouncing it here and trying to run. Can’t get by anybody.
So it’s funny. John Wall just said to me, How do you — I said, Immanuel is getting by. Ashton has to shoot the ball. He had four turnovers, three turnovers, he drove and wouldn’t shoot it. Here is why. Why would I tell you something good has got to happen?
Three things can happen if he shoots it. This is for a lesson for all you here that know nothing about basketball, which is most of you in this room. Not none of you. You people are good. Okay. (Laughter.)
He goes and shoots it. Give me what can happen.
Q. He goes in.
JOHN CALIPARI: Wow. He misses.
JOHN CALIPARI: He misses and we rebounded; he gets fouled or he can turn it over. Why does he do that? Why would you do that? Just shoot it.
Lastly, they get the rebound. Where are they getting the rebound? Out wide for the breakout or underneath the basket? Now you can say thank you, coach. That’s a great lesson.
Q. For those of us who may not understand, could you explain your defense, why it was so good the second half, do you think?
JOHN CALIPARI: We changed up what we were doing in pick and roll. So I made an executive decision and said, All right, we’re doing this different. So we played it different. It took that middle stuff away that they were killing us with.
But we still had the lob where Nick was — you know, we got tired. But the game was a physical game. There was a lot of the body-to-body stuff.
Q. John, your team is on a little bit of a roll now. I’ve heard several of the players say how difficult it is to go through the day-to-day grind of a long season. You say your coaching for March or for the tournament. What specifically are you doing to maybe minimize not only the physical but the emotional aspects of that ground now?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, one of the things I’m doing, I’m starting to workout with a couple of the players. There are four guys that I’m doing individuals with myself. And the reason is, I want them to understand I am for them, I am invested in them, I love you, I want you to do well. Let’s got some work. So I’m touching them more.
The second piece of that is you got to do a lot of film work and you got to do things like I’ve given them books that I want them to read. I brought it up again, the Toughness Book talking about how you can breathe, how you have a mental picture of yourself.
I like to give them videos of themselves that have them playing the way I want them to play and put them on their phone. I’ll send it to them. Now let me ask you. We don’t do long film sessions? Why is that? Attention span. It’s eight minutes. Come on.
Unless they’re watching themselves. They’ll go four straight hours and won’t go to the bathroom. (Laughter.) So you can make that as long as you want. But if it’s having to do the other stuff, they can’t.
But and then lastly, I’ve got one or two more Thursdays to go. I’ve got to make a decision if I back up off the Thursday, because we’re going hard. I mean, there is body to body, there is conditioning. It’s the full two hours and 15 minutes which I normally don’t do.
Is it time? Tomorrow we’ll do film. I’ll workout with the five guys I want to touch, and they’ll have massages. That’s what tomorrow will be.
And then Monday we practice and now we play Texas A&M. I think won five in a row. They beat Mississippi State. I mean, we’re playing another team that’s playing well. They’re going to be feeling good. Buzz is doing a great job with his team.
Q. Seemed like late in the second half you kind of got very deliberate on offense. Was there a reason for that trying to get specific sets?
JOHN CALIPARI: I just wanted them to have to guard us full possessions. I didn’t want quick shots that led them out, so that’s what we did.
Q. How much of a comfort level are you developing or just reassurance at the end of games based on what Immanuel has done both at the free throw line and just seems like always hitting these big shots?
JOHN CALIPARI: I got to do a better job on some stuff on the press. When we get that right I’ll feel way more comfortable.
Right now like they’re throwing the ball almost to the baseline out of bounds. Guys aren’t getting into bodies to get open. We got to help them and really put them in a position. They don’t feel good about how we’re doing out of bounds. It’s obvious they’re not confident with it. If you’re confident you can go.
I like throwing the ball to Nick in those situations. Can you tell me why?
Q. Because he is a good free-throw shooter?
JOHN CALIPARI: Okay. That’s one. That’s good. That’s good.
How about I can just throw it up in the air to him. They’re not denying be that one. Just throw it up and let them grab it and go.
Could have gone to that late, but I didn’t. I’ll being honest with you, I just thought of it just now. (Laughter.)
Q. You were talking about eight-minute attention spans. Has that changed a lot since you started doing this?
JOHN CALIPARI: No.
Q. Player attention spans.
JOHN CALIPARI: Nope. I’ve never had long film sessions. I don’t give them scouting reports. Do you know why I don’t give them a scouting report of the other team? I want them to know our stuff. Now I’m going to have them learn their stuff? My managers know all the other team’s stuff. They go through it.
My team plays their stuff. They don’t have to remember. There is actions they got to remember. And the whole time is, how do I get my guys free mentally. Fresh legs and fresh minds in March. That’s what wins.
Now, that’s why I’m saying Thursday do I do my normal stuff or do we start backing up? Fresh minds means I’m not overwhelming them with two-hour film sessions or with big long scouting reports and overdoing this.
They got to feel free and fresh going into March. And you know, to be honest — and I probably said this last time — about three weeks ago, four weeks ago, I thought we may have maxed out. I’m like, I don’t know if I can get anything more out of this group. I told the team that. Not then, after.
But here is what happens. The only way — in my opinion, the only way your team gets better is if individual players are improving, and not just your starters or your top three. We need Johnny Juzang to just continue to get better. We need Keion to continue to get better.
EJ, you’re close. He is so close to being what he’s capable — he’s close, but he’s close because he’s conditioning, he’s pushing. And then we got to get Nate to play like he did against Arkansas; you don’t have to make every jump shot.
Q. Can’t miss them all.
JOHN CALIPARI: Can’t miss them all. Just make one. And then it’s not so much pressure on your defense or your rebounding. Make a shot or two. Boom. Stay in. They get one or two, okay. You got six, they got four. We’re in good shape. I like that number.
So we got to get that going a little bit, and what’s happened is the players on the floor, the players on the bench everybody seems to be getting better and more consistent, and that’s what we need.
Q. Coach, Tyrese Maxey was three rebounds away from three assists away from a triple double. What area specifically has he improved on since he first came to campus us earlier this year?
JOHN CALIPARI: Nick Richards was four rebounds, a point, and ten assists away from that triple double, too. (Laughter.)
No, I think Tyrese is capable of that. I mean, he should be a triple double, because if he makes easy passes you’re not going to turn it over, and they’re assists because these guys can play.
The second thing is I’ve seen him rebound and do that stuff. Now go get it. You know, he’s doing it. And making those two free throws, folks, that’s first time this year he’s done that. Listen, he’s either missed or gone one of two; he’s not made two. Believe me, I’m watching every game.
He made them this game. Big step for him. Because you got to — demonstrated performance is what builds your confidence, not me saying you’re the greatest or what are you doing? It doesn’t matter if you build your own confidence and you have through hard work, through the grind, and then you get on the court and you perform.
#4, Nick Richards, Jr, F
On Immanuel’s (Quickley) performance when the team needed baskets and he hit three three’s in a row …
“Well he played amazing tonight. He made every shot and if you needed a basket you just ran to him. He made really tough three’s. He just overall played amazing.”
On if (Nick) Richards is going to record a spot for Quickley in the All-American video …
“*laughing* Yeah sure why not.”
On friendly competition for the player of the league spot against Quickley …
“Honestly, we just go with the flow. Whenever it’s our time to get buckets, make a play, or do something on the court, we just let it happen. You know we’re just out there trying to be good teammates to each other.”
On concerns with the press at the end of the last couple of games …
“No concerns, we just need to work on it in practice. I’m pretty sure the coaches are going to go over it more with us. We’re going to get better at it.”
On hitting free throws …
“Honestly that’s really what we aim for on the press late in the games because we know the teams are trying to foul us so that we can go shoot free throws hoping that we’ll miss it. We practice free throws every day, we try to make 50 in a row if that’s possible. I’m one of those who stay back and practice and just work on those free throws.”
On the battle with Kerry Blackshear tonight …
“It was pretty good, it’s pretty fun. He’s a good player, one of the best players in our league. I thought he played really good tonight. He made a lot of good three’s and a lot of smart decisions. He made a couple of assists to his players. I thought he played really well overall.”
On if he talked to Blackshear when he visited UK …
“No, honestly it was just a hi and a bye. I saw him once while he was on campus and he came while I was packing to go home.”
On the defensive strategy when shutting Blackshear down …
“The strategy was basically making his catches hard. Take away his three point shots. I think he went two for six which was good for us. But overall as a team, we defended properly. Obviously, there’s going to be some break downs, but I think we recovered from those late in the game and I think we need to work on it a little bit more.”
#3, Tyrese Maxey, Fr, G
On would you rather personal high scoring or all-around game with 13-7-7 like tonight …
“I’d rather just win! I’m willing to do whatever my team needs and that’s what I tried to do today. Of course, Ashton (Hagans) wasn’t able to start because of his leg and he told me to just do what I do and he had faith in me. So I took on the role of being a lead guard, trying to get our guys involved early like getting EJ (Montgomery) and Keion (Brooks) some shots. I’m glad we won. Win by one, win by twenty, I love it.”
On Immanuel Quickley’s performance tonight …
“Immanuel is just a different breed and I think it’s just a testimony to his work. Coach got on him in the first half because he kept passing up shots and he told him if he doesn’t start shooting, he’s coming out, so I think he got the message. He said he was going to come back and be aggressive, if you open, shoot it. Don’t ever pump fake pass up a shot, you put in too much work for that.”
On improving inbound play …
“I need to practice it, a lot. I mean, stuff happens, we we’re trying to run two different things and I think our bigs didn’t know what the guards were running so we just need to clean that up and work on our communication during crunch time.”
#5, Immanuel Quickley, So, G
On his career high of 26 points …
“God’s been good, it’s all Him. But my teammates do a great job of finding me especially in transition. This team has been great, we have a lot of fun and that keeps us going. I remember Coach Calipari saying to the team, ‘Raise your hand if you are in the 25+ club,” and everyone looked at me like you haven’t had 25 points yet? It happened really quick; I wasn’t pressed to get it, but it just happened.”
On what got the team going tonight …
“One of the coaches yelled at me and said something along the lines of you need to score. Coach Calipari always has my best interest, so I’ve just been playing and trying to be free and just hoop. When they’re yelling at me to shoot, it doesn’t mean I have to, but just be more aggressive with making opportunities for myself or my teammates. In the second half you just have to be a little more aggressive, really in any game in the first or second half. When my team needs me, I try to provide that spark. The guys are always good about being like, ‘Come on Quick, we need you,’ things like that. This team has been great and I’m just thankful for my team.”
On competition between him and Nick Richards …
“There’s no competition. The ‘Pick Nick’ video was great, the ‘decent free throw shooter’ was funny. Nick’s been great this year, definitely an SEC Player of the Year contest for sure. He plays great for us so hopefully he can keep doing great stuff. It’s not my decision to have a video of my own like that so, I’d be just as happy for my team to win a national championship. That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish this season and try to continue to build as a team.”
On his confidence …
“My confidence has been great for a while now. My teammates have been doing a great job of getting me open looks but when you see a couple shots go down that helps. So just to be able to get my confidence higher than it’s been, great.“