It was payback time for the Auburn Tigers on Saturday afternoon as the Kentucky Wildcats cliched the SEC Regular Season Title, it’s 49th in school history, with a 73-66 win at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center.
The No. 15-ranked Tigers won the last meeting between the conference rivals at Auburn on February 1st and denied the Wildcats a trip to the Final Four to close out last season.
However, Saturday proved to be a much different story as the Wildcats beat Auburn for the 18th straight time at Rupp Arena to give Coach John Calipari his sixth conference title at Kentucky (his first since 2017). The Tigers last won in Lexington in January of 1988.
No. 8 Kentucky is now 24-5 overall, (14-2 in the SEC) and has won eight straight with just two games remaining in the regular season. Saturday’s win also makes the Cats an overwhelming No. 1 seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament on March 11-15 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sophomore Immanuel Quickley had a double-double to lead the Wildcats, scoring 18 points to go with a team-high 12 rebounds. Freshman Tyrese Maxey finished with 17 points, while Nick Richards added 14 despite limited action due to foul trouble.
Kentucky trailed by nine points early and played 13 minutes without Richards, yet still outscored the Tigers 24-12 in the post, making a run over the final 12 minutes of the first half to take a 40-37 lead at halftime.
Auburn would cut the lead to two on three different occasions – a layup early in the second half (43-41), a three-pointer at the 11:57 mark (55-53) and a conventional three-point play with 9:13 left in the game to cut the Kentucky lead to 58-56. But the Tigers would go cold late and connect on just eight of their last nine field goal attempts to fall short again at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats also struggled in the half-court offense, going more than seven minutes without a field goal before an Ashton Hagans steal and lay-up extended the Kentucky lead to 63-58 with just over seven minutes remaining. Fortunately, UK made numerous trips to the foul line, finishing the game 27-of-33 (81.8%), and currently lead the SEC in free throw percentage, ranking third nationally.
The Wildcats play their final home game of the season on Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. ET against Tennessee and close the regular season with a trip to Florida on March 7th.
After the game, Calipari and select players met with the media to discuss the win and how it feels to claim another SEC regular-season title, courtesy of UK Athletics.
Q. How does someone 6’3”, 188 pounds go get 12 rebounds, and is that something you need if you’re going to play three guards successfully all the way?
JOHN CALIPARI: “I can’t believe he was 1-for-5 from the three. (Laughter). We’re 2-for-13 from the three, folks, and only have seven turnovers, something we’ve been talking about. This team, they are getting better. They are doing it, but that was another rock fight. That was, when you went up for a rebound, you were feeling stuff. Something in your neck. Something in your back. When you were coming off a screen, or you were driving, it wasn’t like a clear lane, and we — we proved to us that in that kind of game, where it’s — we’re letting it go; that we could perform. Now, Nick (Richards) struggled, but we all know that’s one of the things he’s going to have to break through. How about EJ (Montgomery) today? Unbelievable how he played. So, he’s starting to make those strides. Nick’s got to know, we are going to get in there in March and somebody is going to say one thing: Just go after him, physically push him, shove him, grab him out of the way and see what he does. He’s going to have to perform.”
Q. When Nick (Richards) got in foul trouble, how big was that stretch you got from Keion (Brooks Jr.) and Nate (Sestina)?
JOHN CALIPARI: “Nate making a couple shots was big, and then Keion had a quick foul, didn’t come up with the ball, and the guys got on him. Like, we’re in a huddle, come on, man, you got to get that ball. Then he just said, ok, and he started getting balls. He started rebounding. Made that dunk. He was good. Nate was fine. I mean, our guard play was good. Johnny (Juzang) held the fort down when we needed to blow.”
Q. You’ve got three guards shooting over 80 percent from the line, and that said, do you want the ball in Immanuel’s (Quickley) hands in crucial moments?
JOHN CALIPARI: “Yeah, we do. And again, I know Ashton (Hagans) went 2-for-13, but when he goes five assists, one turnover, three steals, and he defends like- we will win. He can go 2-for-13. The only person it bothers? Him. And his head goes down, and, ‘I can’t believe it, I missed this dunk. Forget it.’ For our team, it really doesn’t matter. If you defend, you get five, six, seven assists and one turnover and you do the rebounding and all of the stuff you’re doing, we’re going to win. But it’s hard for these kids. They are not robots. They are not machines. They have attitudes, which are, if I’m not making it, you know, I hang my head, and they are still trying to break through that. You know, it was a good effort and again, you know, we’re saying Nick wasn’t great, but he gets 14 points and three rebounds, and he gets a big block, a big block late with a minute to go, 1:10.”
Q. It seems to me you have a really unique situation this year. You have three-point guards. They are all pretty good. You are playing them on the court a lot at the same time. How difficult has it been for you, as a coach, to kind of meld them into a unit, and once they start making good decisions, how unstoppable is that going to be?
JOHN CALIPARI: “Well, I had — the first seven, eight games, I didn’t do it, and I had friends of mine in this profession, Hall of Famers, call me and say, ‘Why aren’t you just playing those three guards?’ Because I was trying to make sure we got other guys an opportunity. And then you just narrow in at some point and say, ‘That’s our best team, those three guards and two bigs, that is our best team.’ So, you run with it, but it takes time. Plus, you don’t want to leave anybody behind. You want to give them an opportunity to get in there and play and do stuff. But at the end of the day, if our guards rebound, they have to rebound. We are not going to be a great offensive rebounding team. Why is that? Come on, guys. Somebody has to know. Playing three-point guards, you’re not going to be a great offensive rebounding team. So, you’ve got two guys going against their four. Normally, it’s three against three, three against four, you’ve got a chance it will bounce. We’ve got three-point guards. So, that means we have to shoot free throws the way we do, because we are going to have to make up for it somewhere, and that may be where there are teams out-rebounding us. Again, when you’re playing three-point guard, unless Immanuel and Tyrese (Maxey) and Ashton get in there and mix it up, which they can in most games; some games, guys are just too big.”
Q. If you can just talk about your defense, especially the last eight or nine minutes of the game.
JOHN CALIPARI: “Yeah, if you had watched a bunch of their games, the way they got back in games it is shooting those threes. They just didn’t make them today. And then we rebounded. So, some of it was, you really guarded. Yeah, they took some tough threes, but that’s what they have done to win games. They have been down nine, eight, and all of a sudden, they go three, three, something happens, you miss a free throw, they make free throws, it goes into overtime and they win. They have had a bunch of those kind of games. But we were — we played the pick-and-roll a little bit different. We had to switch it at halftime because we were giving layups and lobs and dunks. We adjusted to that. Auburn, I looked at the guys and I laughed. (Austin) Wiley played for me, Austin, in the USA stuff. (Samir) Doughty, I’ve been seeing this guy for like eight years, and I grabbed him and he laughed and I laughed. These guys are seniors, and they are a good team and they are a dangerous team. They beat us down there. We beat them down here, and it’s — this was a good win for our guys.”
Q. I know you’re chasing national championships, not conference championships, but in a season where you lose to Evansville and you have a couple losses in Las Vegas, what do it mean to you?
JOHN CALIPARI: “You know what’s amazing, when anybody talks about our season, you know what they say? “Evansville, Evansville, Evansville.” I’m like, are you talking about the game November 12th where EJ did not play in the game and Ashton was sick and so was Nick, and we played with two guys with the flu? That game? That’s the one you’re talking about? Can you say it for me again? Evansville, Evansville, Evansville.”
Q. Evansville, Evansville. When you’ve gone through—
JOHN CALIPARI: “I mean, did we play anybody else? It’s like — hey, that’s the great one that they can’t be that, because they lost to — Evansville. How can they be any good? They lost to Evansville November 12.”
Q. In a season where you’ve had struggle and had to grind it out—
JOHN CALIPARI: “Did anybody else lose bad games? I just don’t know.” (Laughter.)
Q. I give up.
JOHN CALIPARI: “I mean, I don’t know if they did. Kyle (Tucker), here is what I would say. I told them after — look, I never stopped believing in this group. I said after Vegas, we’ll be fine. I said it. ‘We’ll be fine.’ But I wasn’t sure about this, where this is going, but I knew we’d be fine. We’d be a team that would be playing, and we’d be playing in March. And the run that these guys have put together — and I come back to the same thing, you’ve got to have five, six games, get 25 points in a game, and maybe multiple games. You must do that, because they have to be able to go in that tournament and know, I can do it if I have to; Marquis Teague, Darius Miller. I can do that if I have to; Doron Lamb. I can do it. Second thing is, you’ve got to got to go on a run of games. Because to win that thing, you have to win six in a row all year. If you haven’t won six in a row all year, why would your team believe you can do it? So, all the stuff we are going through is good. It’s not so much winning our league, as you guys know, or winning our league tournament. It is what are we learning and preparing so when we walk into March, we’re ready, like our teams historically have been. Evansville. Evansville. Evansville.”
Q. You said after the LSU game that Johnny Juzang, Nate Sestina and Keion Brooks may — how far you go may depend on those guys?
JOHN CALIPARI: “And EJ.”
Q. What do you feel like you got from them tonight?
JOHN CALIPARI: “They are getting better. I mean, they are starting to believe. Here is the other thing that young kids, when they are in high school, they really don’t need to look at a stat sheet. Why is that? Oh, they know how many they shot, how many they made, how many fouls they made. They know. They will tell you. Did you look at a stats sheet? No. I’m just playing for these — when you play that way, that backs the up-and-down. You’ve got to play to your training. How are we training you to play, just play that way, and then we’ll look at the stats sheet when the game ends. Second thing, it’s great to have big-time goals. These kids all, you know what they want to do, they want to play professional and I urge them, that’s great, we work on that, but that goal is not the game-to-game stuff. It is, play to your training. You know how we’re trying to get you to play. Play that way and then you don’t have to worry about the possession by possession or if I make this shot, I got 25 or if I make these free — well, then you’re not making them. If I get two more assists, great; you’ve got two more turnovers. You can’t play that way. So, we are kind of walking through that with this group.”
Q. Offensive rebounding is a challenge playing three-point guards. What is the advantage and disadvantage for your opponent trying to deal with that?
JOHN CALIPARI: “The advantage is that if they have a mismatch, to exploit their three. The good news for us is we can play Keion at the three because he’s played there. I’m playing him at the four right now so that Johnny is that rotation there, but I could play him, and I did today, when I took Ashton out, I put him in and gave us a bigger team. We can do that. It becomes a chess match at that point. If they go big and it’s hurting us, we could change how we play.”
Q. Did you think you would ever see a game where Immanuel (Quickley) got 12 rebounds?
JOHN CALIPARI: “I thought the Evansville game, he’d get 12 (laughter). I’m going to hear about that game in two years from now, and I’m like, we didn’t play them this year, I don’t think. They played good, too, by the way. Don’t take anything away from them. Evansville, Evansville, Evansville. Have fun. Thank you.”
#5 Immanuel Quickley, So., G
0n being regular season SEC champions ...
“It feels good, all blessings and glory to God. We’ve been working hard all season and a lot of people doubted us but we believed in ourselves. Stayed true through the process and we got a dub to become regular season champs.”
On getting in rhythm today …
“There was a lot of fouling early, a lot of touch fouls. You can never blame a game on the refs you just have to keep playing. There will be lots of games like that, we felt there were a lot of fouls at Auburn, just two physical teams going at it so we kind of expected the quick whistles and had to adjust throughout the game. You know we work on free throws every day in practice, I work on it in my workouts as well and when shots aren’t falling, you know you’re going to need that especially in a tournament game. Sometimes you have an off night and you don’t want that to be the reason you go home.”
On taking down Auburn after losing to them earlier in the season …
“Auburn is a great and you have to give credit where it’s due. We beat them both times last year during the regular season and they beat us when it mattered in the Elite 8 game. You know the regular season great but if we see them again we have to be prepared for the battle.”
On having 12 rebounds tonight …
“There were a couple tough rebounds but some of them were just free throw rebounds so I was just trying to get in there and do anything to help my team win. Nick (Richards) was boxing out, so was EJ (Montgomery), all the guys were really so I was just trying to get in there and help my team.
#3 Tyrese Maxey, Fr., G
On the feeling of being an SEC champion …
“It feels great! I mean the hard work that we put in during the summer, fall, and now has finally paid off and we are not finished. Not done yet”
On what has clicked recently between the three of the guards on the court including Tyrese …
“We have been playing with each other since what, June? So, we know where everybody wants to bar, and everybody wants to spot. That just takes me back to a play that Ashton (Hagans) made, he drove baseline and Keion (Brooks Jr.) cut, and Keion dunked it. Those plays like that are just like energy builders. I mean, I think we went on a 10 on run, and I’m proud of my guys.”
On the best crowd this season, how did they make a difference between playing here vs. at Auburn …
“It definitely effected the game. I mean thank you BBN as always, they always come out and show support and show love, so we appreciate that.”
On Tyrese and Immanuel having a ton of rebounds …
“Coach Cal always tells us that we have to get rebounds. I mean we’re small, but we have to come up with balls he always says. I missed one late and he told me I better get every single one that comes off the rim. So that is what I tried to do. Immanuel (Quickley) did too as well, Nate (Sestina), everybody was rebounding.”
#1 Nate Sestina, Gr., F
On when Immanuel Quickley doesn’t shoot like usual, what the team has to do to make up for it …
“It just shows what kind of team we are. The guys stepped up today and coach needed that from us; me, E (Ej Montgomery), Nick (Richards), Keion (Brooks Jr.) and Johnny (Juzang). He’s just been talking to us about stepping up, and how we can’t just rely on Tyrese (Maxey), Ashton (Hagans), and Immanuel to score all of our points and get stops for us, so it was big for us today.”
On how much he helped out offensively especially when Nick (Richards) got into foul trouble …
“I just want to do something for us. I didn’t do a whole lot down at Auburn, so for us whether I was going to put the ball into the hoop, defend or try to stay out of foul trouble which I did until second half, but whatever I needed to do to help us out.”
On season journey as a whole ...
“Every season is a rollercoaster and I’ve had seasons like this, you start out well or you start out poorly and finish strong. The best thing for me is just trying to finish out the season strong and finish the regular season strong and out on top and that’s what we’re trying to do. Of course, I’m trying to do the same thing. I had a little bit of a slump in January and I’m just trying to finish out this season strong.”
On the crowd …
“It was a big crowd. It was awesome. It’s a big-time crowd for us, gets us going and gets the momentum. We hit a couple shots and the crowds behind you, we had four minutes left and a little bit of a lead, the crowd started getting into it a little bit. They missed a couple shots and we got a couple more possessions and we kind of just put a fork in them.”
On having something to prove as a team …
“I don’t think there was much within our team, knowing we could do it. This is a team we might face in March or a team like this that were going to face in March. That’s what we’re playing for and a team like this today at home towards the end of the season to get a win like this is huge for us and carries a lot of momentum going into the next game and the next two.”