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John Calipari and Wildcats recap destruction of Vols

“Like I told them after, even when they were playing bad, I believed in them. Even when individuals were so bad that it was scary, I believed in them.“

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

What. A. Beatdown.

Despite entering the game as 7.5-point underdogs, the Kentucky Wildcats thoroughly dismantled 19th-ranked Tennessee en route to a 70-55 victory that frankly wasn’t even that close.

With just three regular-season games left on the ‘current’ schedule, it appears Kentucky is finally rounding into form, and winning the SEC Tournament’s at-large bid to the Big Dance doesn’t look nearly as daunting as it did just a week ago.

After Saturday’s beatdown, head coach John Calipari, sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr. and senior guard Davion Mintz spoke with the media about the game. Here is a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

John Calipari

On holding onto a big lead that was built early in the game …

“I keep talking daggers. Olivier (Sarr) made two free throws and a jump hook, those are daggers. The 3 by Devin (Askew), the rebound by Devin in traffic, those are daggers. The biggest thing is that we’re a good defensive team and we learned a little bit from the last time playing them how you have to play them. We knew coming in that it was going to be hand to hand combat and we didn’t back away. They’re a top-20 team, probably a top-15 team, they have a chance to go to a Final Four and we came in here and did it. It’s one game and now we keep building. A few years ago, we were 6-7 and ended up getting to the Elite Eight I believe. We lost four in a row and everyone’s going crazy and all of a sudden the team turned it around. Like I told them after, even when they were playing bad, I believed in them. Even when individuals were so bad that it was scary, I believed in them. You just keep working with kids—they’re kids. You keep working with them. You hold them accountable, but you keep encouraging and coaching and challenging them and getting them to work outside of their comfort level. Then, when they’re doing it right, you’re there. When they’re not doing it right, you hold them together. That’s coaching. I’m just going to keep doing what we’re doing, the kids are getting better, shooting the ball better. We passed up a couple shots again and I went nuts because they ended up being bad shots when we had open looks. Just take it, you shot an air ball. Why didn’t you take the first one? But instead of 10 or 12 of those, there’s only two of three a game now.”

On starting the second half slow but maintaining the big lead …

“I wish we would have made a bunch of shots and been up bigger, but we were really guarding. And I’ll tell you what else we did, we were really rebounding. I think the last time that they played us, they out-rebounded us and beat us to balls. We did some good stuff today. They weren’t at their best. I know they’re better than they played. But let me just tell you, we were at our best. When we have a game where we have 11 turnovers—and a bunch were at the end so were really only had probably eight or nine turnovers. Like I said, I believe in this team, I still do. I don’t care about the record, I don’t even know what the record is. All I want to know is that we’re getting better. That’s it. People can go crazy saying that I need to know the record, but I’m just telling you, I don’t even look at the score. I’m just coaching my team to get better. And you know what, this young group of inexperienced kids need us to be that way. But hold them accountable. You have to hold them accountable or you’re not coaching.”

On defending Tennessee’s Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer …

“We tried to crowd the court a little bit and we did a better job of it. And we played team defense. We’re becoming a team. Can you imagine? Do you know where we were four weeks ago? Every guy trying to get theirs. I think the last six games, we have seven guys in double figures. Jacob Toppin has eight points a game. So you have eight guys that are almost double figures. That’s a team. You’re not trying to get yours, we’re trying to do this together. I’ve been begging and talking, and I think sometimes you have to hit the bottom to climb back, but it was a good effort.”

Keion Brooks Jr.

On keys to stopping Tennessee’s offense …

“Just a point of emphasis of having your teammates back. Not leaving anybody on an island so that they could get downhill on us. Check the basket. They did a great job of that last game. I feel like this game we had a much better game plan of stopping their penetration. Being out there, helping each other.”

On the relationship between playing as a team and defensive physicality …

“They go together. The more physical you are, the more things you are able to do. You can’t make a lot of plays being pushed around and getting bullied. When we come with that physicality, being aggressive and asserting ourselves, that frees you up to make more plays.”

On the importance of getting an early lead …

“It was extremely important to know that we can do that. We can build these leads and finally bury a team and put a team away. It felt good to be able to keep our foot on the gas pedal the whole time. We need to build on that and do that more often.”

On what the feeling is now following three consecutive wins …

“So now, let’s keep it rolling. Let’s keep the momentum that we’ve got, keep playing this way. Playing hard, believing in each one of our teammates, believing in the coaching staff. Like I said before, everybody needs each other to get it done. So, that’s the feeling right now.”

Davion Mintz

On how hot he was in the first half …

“Yeah, I was burning up at the beginning. Like you said, just me being me. And that’s extremely helpful to do that at the beginning of the game, kind of take the air out of the other team. So that was big.”

On how important it was to see the team win three games in a row …

“Yeah. I mean, that’s huge for us, especially with everything we’ve been through already this season. To kind of go on the road, especially at this time right now, that’s huge. It’s exactly what we needed heading to March.”

On whether the hot offensive first half or the defensive effort in the second half was more impressive …

“I think both. At one point in the game, I told my teammates my gun is jammed. We have to do something. But, just for us to keep that lead, that’s huge. It showed the past three, four games, for us to continue to fight throughout the last six, five, four minutes, that’s a huge improvement. I think Keion (Brooks Jr.) mentioned earlier about the fact that we’re all new guys playing with each other, trying to find that glue. Of course, it came late for us, but that’s a huge accomplishment for this team, it’s kind of what coach has been pushing.”

On what it says about the team that they didn’t let Tennessee get back into the game late …

“Yeah, absolutely, that was the best part. Just the fact that we started out that hot and just kept it going for the entire game. That was huge for us and our confidence. I think that we owed them one and it was big for us to come in and do it.”

On Coach Cal saying that the players know who should be playing …

“Yeah, I mean, this is just a group of unselfish guys. Some days, you have Jacob (Toppin) playing out of his mind. You can name everyone. Everyone has had a great game this season. The coaches put the team together and the players run it. In the most respectful way, Coach knows, he’s the mastermind of this whole cruise ship that we have. We know who’s leading the way some nights, we know who needs to be out there. That’s the beauty of having a bunch of guys that are super unselfish, that want the best for the next man. We know who needs to be out there. Sometimes, we’ll sub ourselves out. We have a bunch of guys doing it. With everything we’ve been through, that’s great that we still have that attitude.”