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Calipari and senior leaders recap win over Vanderbilt

Winning feels good.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky Wildcats guard Davion Mintz continued the good vibes in 2021, nailing a three-pointer from deep in the corner at Rupp Arena to lift the Wildcats to a 77-74 win over Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. The Cats are now off to a 2-0 start in SEC play to start the New Year.

With the game tied at 74-all under the one minute mark, Devin Askew found Mintz for the game-winner and the Cats ultimately escaped with the win after Vanderbilt’s final three-point attempt missed after bouncing around the rim at the final buzzer.

Olivier Sarr led the Wildcats with 24 points and was 14-of-17 from the free throw line. Dontaie Allen, coming off SEC Freshman of the Week honors with a career-high 23 points against Mississippi State, finished with 14 points. Mintz and Askew added 11 each.

BJ Boston, still considered by many to be an NBA Lottery Pick, struggled again with just six points on 3-of-9 shooting and drew some boos from a small crowd at Rupp. The Wildcats are also waiting for Keion Brooks and Terrence Clarke to return from injury.

The good news is that Kentucky looked much better offensively, making just two turnovers the entire game, none in the first half. Most importantly, the Wildcats hit 12 straight free throws down the stretch and finished 26-of-32 for the game (81.3%).

However, UK did loss the battle on the glass as Vandy outrebounded the Cats 42-29.

Kentucky improves to 3-6 overall, 2-0 in conference play, and returns to action on Saturday at Florida.

After the game, Calipari, Sarr and Mintz met with the media to discuss a thrilling victory, courtesy of UK Athletics.

John Calipari

Q. Some of the guys on the offense are making easier plays. How is that helping build towards some of your other guys getting to that point?

JOHN CALIPARI: We only had two turnovers, which is crazy. We had none at halftime. You’re talking about a team that led the nation in unforced turnovers. So, you could tell what the last two weeks, three weeks all I’ve been working on, making the easiest play, not trying to be a hero. If a guy’s right in front of you, you throw it to him. How about this? If you drive and your man or someone else’s man is in front of you, for all you Basketball Benny’s, what does that mean? You drive and there’s a man in front of you and it’s not your man?

There’s somebody open because you got a guy that’s not your man. We’re getting better. The other thing is the execution and I’m demanding it. I mean, coming out of a timeout the Olivier Sarr play, the last play, for Davion Mintz, execution. You know why? They’re worried about their team instead of themselves. Everybody’s got a role. Jacob Toppin was ridiculous. And, again, I told them, whoever fights, I’m leaving in the game. I need fighters. Just like we did at Mississippi State. I need fighters. And if I play five guys the rest of the way, that’s what we’re going to do. Dontaie Allen broke down a ton today defensively. He made baskets and free throws when we needed it, but he may have given up as many as he scored. And I told him, I said, look, if that’s the case and it’s even-steven, I’m probably good with you. But you got to get to where — and they were game planning stuff. Like, he went under a screen, and he did, just did some stuff. But I’m telling you, he deserves to be on that court and you know what he does to the defense? He spreads out the defense. I ran a play for him, banged a three. Right to the top. Boom. That may have been out of a timeout.

Q. Obviously you found a group that kind of works at the end of the game the last two games, but what’s your message to Brandon Boston Jr. right now? How is his confidence? There were some boos at one point in the first half. I don’t know if you heard that or not.

JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, look, I don’t give up on any player and I believe in. B.J. (Brandon Boston Jr.), we have been working on B.J. to play a certain way, but he’ll revert back to what he knows best, those flips, don’t get fouled. I have — you know, I mean, we — and I told him, all the stuff we have been working on, you did none of it today. And I expected him to have a big game today because he’s been so good in practice, so good in individuals, all the stuff the, coming to a stop in the lane and just to one, two stop, like a little floater, and he had two or three opportunities and he’s trying to flip balls. So, but he’ll get it, and I believe in him. But, again, he didn’t come out because of his offense. He came out because defensively they were going right at him. They went right to him. And he’s got to take pride. Say you’re not doing that to me, not at my length. I’m 6’ 7” and got long arms, seven-foot wing span. You’re not shooting layups. I’m not getting on your side. I’m not going to foul you. I’m going to give ground and be tough and bend over and defend. Capable of doing it, but it was, you know, I thought, again, I said to Devin (Askew) and Davion (Mintz), they had 22 points, five assists, no turns between them. Wow. I grabbed them after the game. I told Isaiah (Jackson) how proud I was. How about Isaiah? Struggled early, had a little emotional thing on the bench, kissed him on the forehead, said, look, I love you, kid, just come, back you’ll be fine. And then he gets the biggest rebound of the game, the last one, above the rim, jerked it in, screamed for — a will to win.

Q. You made 26 out of 32 free throws. What, if anything, does that say to you?

JOHN CALIPARI: Well they’re a three-point shooting team. So, when you shoot — how many threes did they shoot? 27? 28? So, you’re not, they’re not going to have as many opportunities. We were posting the ball and trying to drive the ball. I’m trying to really define how we’re going to have to play and we’re getting closer to it. So, and some of the stuff was out on the floor late, so I would say six of them. But Davion (Mintz) and Devin (Askew) and then Dontaie (Allen), now Dontaie missed one and there was a lane violation, so he had another opportunity, which became a big play because that last three could have been for a winner. But like I said, I’m getting a better feel, but we’re going to have to fight now. We got the top of the league coming up, the best teams in the league, here they come, and, but in January we’re 2-0.

Q. Along those lines, you’ve made this progress essentially without getting anything out of B.J. (Brandon Boston Jr. ) or Terrence Clarke because Terrence has been hurt and B.J.’s been struggling. Is there, in some measure, some encouragement there that these other guys have sort of dragged you guys along while you wait on those two to click?

JOHN CALIPARI: You know, what you do, well, Terrence (Clark) is or — he’s out because he’s hurt. Keion (Brooks Jr.) is out because he’s hurt. B.J.’s (Brandon Boston Jr.) just not playing well, but I’ve been, look, we can lie to kids or we can keep it real. If someone’s playing better and tougher than you, they’re going to be in there, especially the last five, eight minutes of the game. Just how it is. And he knows that. And I told him when I took him out, I said, look, man, take pride in your defense. They’re just coming right at you. And he will. I mean, he’s a terrific player.

Do you know how hard this has been? How about they don’t get a chance to play in front of 24,000? Do you know how much this team would need that? Do you understand that all this stuff, we didn’t have team building and all the things that happened, and then emotionally and — and our fans have been great, they haven’t been burying the kids. They have been pretty positive with them. But you could tell that this stuff adds up. So, now I don’t want him putting too much pressure. Devin (Askew) did that early, and I had to say, come on, man, step back. I believe in you, but you can’t be in the mindset you’re in like every basket is life and death. You can’t play ball.

Q. I was going to ask you about Jacob (Toppin). Six points, six rebounds. Have all of your best teams had that energy guy that can come in? And are you surprised he’s able to do that for you?

JOHN CALIPARI: No, because I’ve seen it. Now, I did tell him that fadeaway with the leg kick wasn’t needed when he got a post-up and he just turned and threw an airball. I said, ‘Why would you do that? Like, because you hadn’t shot it in a while? Come on, man, don’t.’ And he has gotten so much better offensively. His decision making, his ability to run downhill and get layups. How about his rebounding on free throws? I mean, you understand now he’s gotten two of those in the last two games. So I’m really proud of him, and I told the team the reason we won the game is Jacob guarded (Vanderbilt guard Scotty Pippen Jr.), and the only time Pippen got going is when Olivier (Sarr) stood straight up and down and backed away, versus what we were trying to do, which is get up there and square it off. You know, that’s when he scored. But Pippen’s—look, how many (points) did he end up with? Twenty-some? Eighteen? I mean, he’s a good player. (Vanderbilt is) going to win games because they make shots. They made eight (three-pointers) in the first half. I told the guys, every year we play them, guys, it’s exactly the same way. They make all these shots, and then we got to fight like heck and try to win a close game. Every time we played them last year, this year, the year before, every coach, not just this coach, the last coach and the one before that. So I’m happy for the kids. It’s a ‘W.’ And now let’s evaluate the tape. We’ll grade the tape possession-by-possession to be able to tell the players, ‘Here’s the breakdowns. Here are the “F’s.” Here are the “A’s.” Here’s the execution on defense. Here’s the “F” in execution. What did we talk about? Why did you do this? Didn’t we talk about it for two days? You chose to do what you wanted to do, not what the team needed you to do.’ And we’re still in that mode. I mean, they probably had four of the eight threes because of our miscommunication or us being in the wrong spots, not where we were supposed to be. And kind of like (Dec. 12 versus) Notre Dame. When you give that team open threes, what? They make them. Just like Notre Dame did to us. That was on us. We broke down.

Q. When you talk about Dontaie (Allen’s) defense, are his breakdowns something that will be hard to fix? And what did you think of his poise on offense?

JOHN CALIPARI: No, no, no. And he rebounded the ball. He got a couple rebounds. I’ll give you an example: If your man was getting screened, he didn’t have the ball, we’re chasing that. He went inside and his man made a three. If your man was getting a dribble handoff—Do you know what that is, Larry (Vaught)? Like, the guy dribbles to you and he goes to hand it off.

Q. I do.

JOHN CALIPARI: We were not going over that. We were going under that. He went over that. If your man was going through the lane to the weak side, you were to stop with both feet in the lane on the other side of the basket to where you left. Not, well he went out there twice, outside the lane, and wasn’t ready to switch to a guy that he needed to switch to because he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. And again, we spent two days on it. But he wasn’t the only one. Isaiah (Jackson) did it, Davion (Mintz) did it a couple times. But he had some breakdowns. But you know what, like I told him after, ‘You had seven or eight breakdowns, nine, eight. Let’s just get it to four. And then keep making shots. Just keep making shots, kid.’ And the team laughed. I mean, look, you got to give up something sometimes and he’s trying, and he’s got a lot of courage, but like I said, our breakdowns (weren’t) just him, but I want everybody out there to know, look, what he’s doing for us, we can’t replace it. So I got to figure out how I get him better on defense or more comfortable.

Q. It seems like with every passing game you are really starting to trust Devin (Askew) and Davion (Mintz) in the backcourt to be able to make plays for you guys. That final play, to be able to trust those two guys to make that shot and Davion to be able to hit it…

JOHN CALIPARI: Well, here’s what I’m doing: I’m giving them stuff to run, because I want to do less and I need them to do more. That, here’s the stuff we’re running, you run what you want. But here are the two or three things we’re going with. And then there may be a timeout and I say, ‘Okay, let’s do these couple things now. So if we have it in transition, you know what it is. If not, at a dead ball, here it is.’ And I let them make those choices. We did miss a bunch of layups now today, we probably missed four or five. And maybe those should be runners versus layups because of our size. But like I said, I’m happy for the kids, (Brandon Boston Jr.) is going to be fine. We need our fans to absolutely support (Boston). I don’t know why anybody would just want to be nasty to anybody. If you want to be nasty, be nasty to me. It’s my fault. Don’t be nasty to him. I’m the one that put him in the game. So if you’re mad, just be mad at me. Be positive. Everybody left Devin alone. When Devin struggled early, no one really got on Devin, our fans left him alone, they let him do his thing. And look where Devin is now. And now I’m saying the same thing. Our fans haven’t been bad on (Boston), they’ve been pretty good. Because they’re good people. They’re not nasty, they’re not trolls, it’s not who they are. So now you’ll see him begin to come—and you know what, you feel like you played a part in it. It’s like you’re in this building and 24,000 (fans) with us here, with us not here, it’s a different game for us. But I say it again, it’s a good win, we got tough games coming up, all I’m trying to do every day: How do I get these guys better, how do I get them to understand I believe in them, how do I get them to understand they must execute on both sides of the ball for us to have that chance that we want to do something unique and special? Thanks.

Olivier Sarr

On being an impact player in recent games …

“For me, I think I needed to focus on fighting and competing and just playing my game out there. No pressure, just being locked in and having fun at the same time.”

On how the team supports Brandon Boston Jr. …

“We just tell him to stay the course. It is coming. I mean he is working, working harder than everyone else. He is in the gym. It is just a matter of time, and I know it is coming. We put confidence in him because we see it every day in practice. It is a matter of time, honestly.”

On how Jacob Toppin assists in creating plays …

“JT (Jacob Toppin) is at the right spot at the right time in every game. On defense, he takes pride in guarding the best player. He did an unbelievable job. He is doing the dirty work and it has been enough for us.”

On Dontaie Allen’s floor spacing …

“He’s a knockdown shooter. He showed us last game, and this game again. His offense is self-explanatory. He opens the court for everybody. Whether it is driving lanes or in the post with the bigs, it changes the game. It makes winning easier. He wants to do what is best for the team, which is shooting 3s. He still must find a way to get his 3s off.”

On his thoughts on Vanderbilt’s potential game tying shot …

“Let us win. Please do not go in. Davion (Mintz) hit an incredible shot with great execution.”

Davion Mintz

On his feelings about the last offensive play of the game …

“It felt amazing, Coach is drawing it up and I knew where he had placed me. I knew that it would be open. Devin (Askew) put it right on the money and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this feels amazing,’ especially right after I vividly remember missing one of my game-winning 3s at Creighton, just to hit one in that exact same spot, years later of course, that just felt amazing.”

On rumors about Kentucky being the “unluckiest” team in the country and Vanderbilt’s last-second shot …

“My heart was dropping, they kind of experienced what we have been going through for a while. Coach calls it buzzard’s luck, and that’s what they had. They had a good look with the ball-fake and they got the rebound and kicked it back out. Just the fact that it hit every part of the rim, me and Dev (Devin Askew) will look at the film again and we were just staring in shock. Thank God it went our way.”

On Jacob Toppin’s meaning to this team and his important screen late in the game …

“Yeah, without that screen there wasn’t a shot. The execution on that play was just perfect, like everyone executed from the speed, the timing, everything, but besides that Jacob was just one of the reasons we were in that game. Especially when Devin (Askew) and I got those fouls, he wasn’t prepared at all to guard Scotty Pippen Jr. and it just shows his resilience and his focus that he had this week to look and see. We didn’t have to tell him many times what we were doing on these ball screens and how to be aggressive and how to guard, he just fought and that’s what we need out of Jacob and what he’s really good at. He was huge today in the win for us.”

On the emphasis of getting Olivier Sarr the ball in the post …

“Yeah, I mean certain schemes, we try to do certain things with the bigs a little bit differently each game. We understand that in order for us to win, we have to let Olivier get touches in the paint, high post areas. For him, it’s like you said, he had a very huge game and picked up a lot of free throws for us. He is a big guy so sometimes he can get the defender on his back, he’s able to do a lot of things and be crafty. It really opens up our offense when he gets It in those areas.”