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Calipari, Brooks and Mintz recap dominant win at Florida

Welcome back Keion Brooks.

Keion Brooks Jr. UK Athletics

Making his first appearance this season, Kentucky Wildcats sophomore Keion Brooks took the wheel on Saturday night in Gainesville, putting the Wildcats back in the driver’s seat in the Southeastern Conference after winning 76-58 at Florida.

After losing six straight during the non-conference schedule, the Big Blue machine seemed destined for an overhaul as the Wildcats dropped out of the national rankings, faced player dissention on the sidelines, and were projected to miss its annual March invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

All of that changed on Saturday night with Brooks getting his first two points of the year on a two-handed dunk to flip the script on a forgettable 2020 as Kentucky is now 3-0 in conference play and looks primed for a deep run through the SEC schedule.

Brooks, playing in his first game in over 10 months, was one of four Kentucky players in double figures, finishing with 12 points, six rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes of action against the Gators. BJ Boston and Davion Mintz led the Cats with 13 points each, while Olivier Sarr added 10.

Having Brooks on the floor also helped create some much-needed space for 6-foot-9 forward Isaiah Jackson, who had one of his best games with nine points, six rebounds and four blocked shots. Dontaie Allen finished with six points on a pair of three-pointers.

Offensively, the Wildcats finally found some rhythm, shooting 55.8% from the field (29/52), 46.2% (6/13) from behind the three-point arc and 92.3% (12/13) from the free throw line. Kentucky also shared the ball in the half-court offense, collecting 18 assists in the victory.

Kentucky, 4-6 overall, is back in action on Tuesday night vs. the Alabama Crimson Tide at Rupp Arena.

After the game, Calipari and select players meet with the media via Zoom to discuss Kentucky’s third straight conference win.

John Calipari

On if what Keion Brooks Jr., did today surprised him …

“No, he’s been, the only thing he wasn’t able to do with us, was anything that was with contact. So he was practicing, conditioning and I told him I said, ‘You better get ready because we are going to know something in the next couple of days. You better condition.’ And he has been. He’s really disciplined, consciousness. It’s just nice to have a steadying force. Did you notice what I did at the end of the game with him? I love it when you guys don’t watch the game and ask questions. I had him take it out of bounds, because he was the one I knew would throw it to the right guy and that’s what he gives us. But, I thought there was a lot of good. Eighteen assists. We ended up out rebounding them and they played hard. Dontaie (Allen) didn’t make all these shots, he plugged one then he passed up one because everyone has him thinking he has to be this guy. Please leave him alone and let him be that guy that we are begging to shoot balls, it’s not like he has to make eight 3s a game. The ones he made gave us the burst to lead at halftime. I tell you whatm, I’m happy with him. Oliver (Sarr), I grabbed him after I said he had a great first half but I liked the lineup at the end of the game, so I stuck with it and he was fine. How about BJ (Boston)? BJ played for us played to the training. Here’s the greatest play he made. He dribbled it up and threw it where he could have tried to shoot it and he threw it Davion (Mintz) in the corner for a 3. He hadn’t done that all year. He would have gone in the middle and loop-deloop and spun and thrown. I mean just play the game as it comes, and so I was really proud of him. The biggest thing I told him in the first half if you don’t come up with loose balls, I’m not playing you. So, you see he started diving for balls including the last one. Devin (Askew) was good too.”

On Isaiah Jackson …

“Well again, with him, you’ve got to just know, know that he can do things no one else on this team can do. He can go get a block. He can go get a rebound. He can just do stuff other guys can’t do and so you know there are points in the game he needs to be in there. He’s a skilled player, you know? But I’m like I said, ‘Jacob (Toppin) did ok. He wasn’t the same as he was, but he was fine.’ I went crazy, when he every time he has a breakaway that he tries to dunk that’s what it looks like. Why not lay it in and if you miss it you and tip it back? And I said we aren’t settling for that. And I told them at the end of the game I’m coaching like it’s a close game. But we needed to let them know that if you defend and you execute and you pass to each other you will beat some people by 20. But you can’t be selfish offensively, breakdown defensively and then have to make plays at the end of a game. Like I said this was a great win for these kids, they are moving in the right direction and again I come back to our fans have been great to this team letting them buy time and understand that they didn’t have 16 games under their belt like normal teams and we didn’t have the kind of schedule that we have and Cal’s making excuses and they never turned on these kids and that’s what great about Kentucky fans, class, class, people; and they supported Devin, BJ. Or you could bury them and try to be so nasty and I understand COVID’s hit a lot of people, but you know like I said our fans are unique and special.”

On the team’s decision to kneel for the anthem …

“We didn’t have a whole lot of conversations. I heard that they wanted to do it when we were on our way to the arena and so I called the three leaders in and said, ‘Talk to me.’ And they said, ‘We want to kneel.’ I said, ‘Tell me why.’ And they said, ‘This is why.’ I said, ‘Ok.’ They said, ‘Will you kneel with us?’ And I said, ‘Do you want me to?’ They said, ‘Yes. We do.’ And I said, ‘Ok. I’ll kneel with you.’ So, I think again, it’s something that speaks for itself. These kids are good kids. They care about this country and all of the other stuff. They’re trying to figure out life and making statements that they think they have to make. I want to listen to what they’re saying and then I’ll support them if they want me to be there. If they said that we’re good by ourselves, I probably wouldn’t have been out there.”

On Keion Brooks Jr.’s impact …

“Well first of all, when – I told the team this – when he talked to the doctors, he was scared to death and thought it was going to go longer this, that and the other. Hands were shaking and he came to see me and that they cleared him. He and I got emotional. I hugged him. I said, ‘We’ve got to figure out how we slide you in.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I trust you. You do whatever you think is best for this team.’ And I told the team that. And I said, ‘Think of some of you. You get subbed and you’re like, why’d he sub me? Think of you. Think of how he responded to this. He’s a leader by example. He’s not a confrontational guy. That’s not who he is.’ You saw the kind of athlete he is. You see that he’s way physically stronger than he was. Way more patient mentally. The game has slowed down for him. But it’s a good deal. We’ve been playing without him, come on. But again, I come back to that’s why you want to have a great fanbase that understands and isn’t going crazy, that gives kids a chance and that’s why you want those kinds of things.”

On the offensive balance …

“I hope so. You know that my teams historically have had five guys in double figures unless someone is an unbelievable scorer then they’ll go between 16 – the most anyone scored was Jamal Murray and he averaged 20. When he’s getting 50 in a pro game, you think he probably could have scored a few more. But he sacrificed for his team so we could have five guys in double figures. But the reality of it is, it’s who has it going? It’s how we play here. This is a culture of learning to fight, learning to be a teammate, learning to execute for each other, playing and worrying more about your team than yourself. That’s what this is here. Having a competitive spirit. Knowing that you’re not just exchanging baskets, it’s that you’re trying to beat that other guy and that other team. That’s the culture here. If you don’t want that culture, then you can’t be here. So that’s where we’re now going to. This was a good game for us, but look we’ve got other games. Alabama (UK’s next opponent) is terrific. You know? The way they play and how they space the court and tough veterans, guys that have been around. It’s going to be a hard game for us. Let’s enjoy this. Let’s enjoy these kids. Let’s enjoy their growth. I know there was probably some people that put dirt on the coffin. We pushed the coffin open and said, ‘You ain’t putting that dirt on this.’ That stuff was out there, but look – I kept saying to you. We’ve got good kids. I’m proud of these kids. They just need time. And I’m not changing that thought. We just need time.”

Davion Mintz

On the impact Keion Brooks Jr. had on Saturday’s game …

“You watched the game, you saw it. He gave us a whole different element to the game. Keion was amazing today. It was super fun. I’m speechless, really. It was amazing.

On what he had seen from Brooks in practice leading up to Saturday’s game …

”Yeah, Keion has been having good practices. He’s been easing in. But, not to discredit his practices, but it was nothing like the game. The game, he just turned it to a different switch. That was amazing. We were kind of just testing him, seeing what he could do. We knew he’d play well, but we didn’t know that he would come in and make the big impact that he did. So that’s just a credit to his work in the rehab and the guys that have been helping him throughout this stretch. (UK strength coach) Rob (Harris) has been doing a good job with him.”

On the team kneeling during the national anthem before the game …

“A lot of people see what’s going on right now, and it kind of speaks for itself. That was just our statement of what’s going on in America at this time.”

On how much Brooks can help the team as they gain more experience with each other …

“Tremendously. Kentucky prepared him. This is different. He spent his one year here. It’s not like he has pressure on him. He told me before the game ‘you know, I’m just going to go out there and have fun. I have nothing to lose, I’m so blessed to be playing right now.’ And once I saw that he had that attitude, I’m like, OK, good day for Keion. And he did. Honestly, he hasn’t even been able to practice with the first group and kind of get a feel but he just fell right in and he was rolling. Hopefully, we can keep that going. I’m super proud of him and I’m happy for him.”

On how the team has improved its assist numbers …

“Like I was preaching earlier, in the beginning of the year, just stay patient with us, just give us time and let us figure this thing out. And I kept using those same words because I knew it would all come together. That’s all it took. We got our war wounds and we went out battling in a couple of losses we had. But now, this is a new team. New year, new team. And we’re just going to keep battling and keep having fun out there.”

On what made the entire team play well on Saturday …

“I attribute it to the focus that the guys have had throughout practice. I attribute it to the game plan that the coaches have prepared for us. A lot of film, they’ve been keying in. And then, of course, Keion Brooks makes an impact on this team. And it was huge. With him being out there makes everything much easier. You do have another leader out there, someone who has been through knowing what they’re doing.”

On if the team making the decision to kneel united the team …

“Yeah, absolutely. That can attribute to it. Just talking, having those conversations. Any time you’re discussing things, it doesn’t matter if it’s basketball, if it’s personal stories, just getting together and hanging out, that’s building a bond for us and helping us to become more sensitive to each other and just understanding each other. So definitely, I think those conversations help and we’re going to continue having them because it’s working.”

Keion Brooks Jr.

On if he surpassed his own expectations on Saturday …

“I’ve always believed in my ability to come back and play well. I was constantly working out, staying in great shape. I have to give a huge shout out to our strength coach Rob Harris. I don’t even like to call him a strength coach, he’s way more than that. Not only did he do a great job of keeping me in shape but I spent a lot of time with him so he was always in my ear, making sure I was staying positive. The conversations we had, he really helped me get through what I was going through.”

On if the “reboot” shows what this team can be moving forward …

“I could always tell, slowly but surely, we were heading in the right direction. Especially with the new year, people make resolutions to reset their minds and regroup themselves. And I give this whole team credit, everybody came in with a new mindset to continue to push through, play together, make the right plays and trust our coaching staff that they will put us in a position to win every night.”

On Isaiah Jackson’s play of late …

“It’s the first time I’ve actually been on the floor with a lot of these guys. What surprised me about Isaiah was, I knew, but it’s different when you’re out there on the floor, how high of a basketball IQ he has. Great passer, just watching how he protects the rim as a shot blocker. He just gives us a different element as far as being able to pass the ball out of the post. When he catches it around the rim, he’s finishing. It felt really good to get out there and play with a bunch of guys that, quite frankly, I’ve never play with before.”

On the team diving for a lot of loose balls on Saturday …

“That’s something we prioritize. We do a drill, we dive on the ball every day. Earlier in the year, there were some guys who were a little hesitant, which is understandable, you’re not always asked to do things like that when you’re in high school. Here, we have a different standard that we’re going to win those 50/50 balls every single chance we get. We mixed it up a little bit and we got a couple of them.”

On what he brings to the team, including his leadership …

“You hit the nail on the head, my leadership. I just try to bring energy and hopefully my energy is infectious to my teammates. They also did a great job of sticking with me the whole time I was hurt. I didn’t want to go out there and let them down, not playing to their standard, not being as engaged as they are, not having as much energy as they would have. That works both ways. My leadership was really dependent on them and them allowing me to be a leader. It went well tonight.”

On if the team was trying to send a message to the country with its play on Saturday …

“A lot of people couldn’t wait for us to have a down year. We struggled early and a lot of people started to write us off but it was early. And we played a heck of a schedule for having a team with a whole bunch of guys who have never played for Cal before. Coach made sure we were ready, we kept fighting through. A lot of people tried to throw a lot of dirt on us and bury us, but we’re going to keep fighting, we’re not going to go away.”