Though the first and final games of the Kentucky Wildcats’ regular season went well, the 22 in-between didn’t exactly go as planned.
The Wildcats finished the regular season with a 9-15 record and their only hope of making the Big Dance to win-out in the SEC Tournament.
Was it possible? Absolutely.
Unfortunately, Big Blue Nation had a definite answer sooner than they had hoped for. Kentucky was bounced in the first round of the SEC Tournament for the first time in program history, bowing late to the Mississippi State Bulldogs by a score of 74-73.
Dontaie Allen’s spark from downtown (23 points) kept the Wildcats close and at one point ahead late in the contest, but Kentucky simply couldn’t hold on to the lead. A no-show from star recruit BJ Boston didn’t help, as he was held scoreless on 0/4 shooting in 23 minutes.
Projected lottery pick Isaiah Jackson fouled out in just 19 minutes.
Most of Big Blue Nation probably thought Kentucky could pull out at least one game in Nashville, but that was indeed not the case. Instead the Wildcats will be packing their bags early and start looking ahead to next season, which turns into an interesting topic.
Who will stay at Kentucky? Will there be any transfers? How can the coaching staff improve themselves?
So many questions and so much time to answer them. For now, Big Blue Nation can express a sigh of relief that such a weird and disappointing season has come to an end. Big Blue Nation can now look forward to next year and all of the moves that lie ahead.
Here’s what head coach John Calipari and his Wildcats had to say following the loss.
THE MODERATOR: We are joined by coach. Would you like to start with an opening statement.
JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, just finishing it off at the end, I thought we were going to make a run. The way we started the game was so disappointing. Basically we got punked. I mean, they’re plus-15 rebounds. Are you kidding me?
I’ve never seen that. Division I against Division III maybe, but I’ve never seen 15. Are you going to be down 30 rebounds? They’re going to out-rebound you 15 to 20? I never heard of such a thing.
I told them at halftime, this will be a great story, this comeback, if that’s what you want. I can’t play anybody that’s not going to rough it up. If you don’t want body contact, you can’t be in this game.
Then I was trying anything I could. Dontaie had it going. The kids loved it, I loved it. We were running stuff for him. He was making shots.
You notice from the Arkansas game, I kind of adjusted the out-of-bounds stuff. We did what we wanted and got a good look. If he wasn’t so wide open, I would have called a timeout right in front of us. He was so wide open, I just let it go.
But it’s just disappointing. Let me just say, kind of like the year went. A couple baskets here, a block here, they make a free throw, we miss a free throw, a guy is wide open, instead of making a tough play and getting fouled, we take a jump shot that doesn’t have a chance of going.
Our teams physically have always been roughhouse tough. This team wasn’t that way. But let’s look at it. All they’ve been through, you’re down 14 at half, could have been down 20, you come back and go up 5 or 6. The only basketball thing I showed them, they ran the same play twice. Dontaie got screened and didn’t say anything.
Instead of, Take mine, take mine, he didn’t say anything.
When they ran it the second time and he didn’t say anything, it didn’t matter, go out and guard them. We gave them one. That was the two. I’m like, C’mon now, we’re better than that. That’s having basketball sense.
Give Mississippi State credit. They were ready to go. Their bigs haven’t done that to any team this year what they did to us. They scored almost every point in the first half.
THE MODERATOR: We’ll take questions.
Q. I’m sure over the course of this year you’ve spent a lot of time thinking, How did we get here, how did this happen. What are the biggest things you feel like you’ve learned?
JOHN CALIPARI: Not right now. Let’s just talk Mississippi State. That’s all I’m going to talk about because to really sit back and look at some things that went, guys that we thought, the corona.
One of the things I’m proud of, we went five months with no positive tests on the staff or the team. Five months. That means the kids were disciplined. That means the university was doing what they were supposed to do to keep these kids safe, how we traveled, what they did. No expense was spared to make sure we did it the right way.
But, again, this is having a brand-new team without Keion, without Terrence, trying to do this, then playing one of the best schedules in the country. Doesn’t bode well for what was going on.
You know what’s sad? We were a couple wins away from being a team, even with a bad record, two or three wins, and you’re right there with all the numbers that they’re saying all these teams in the NCAA tournament.
You know what, at the end of the day you got to win games and you got to be tough and you got to play winning basketball, not just basketball. I’m either going to get fouled or it’s a shot I can make or a shot someone rebounds. Defensively I’m not breaking down and fouling and giving them a chance to beat us on the foul line. Ain’t happening. That’s not winning basketball.
We were never able to get fully engaged in that. But I’ll say this, all these kids have been through, and they never stopped, they gave us an effort every night in practice, every game. We were lacking and flawed in different ways as a team, but they fought.
I would say disappointed in the record but not disappointed in these kids. Not disappointed in them. We weren’t what we thought we could be at some different spots. We’ll address that when the season’s over, or when this winds down, I should say.
Q. Obviously there were lots of things out of your control this year in terms of COVID. Do you think that had a bigger part in how this played out or are there things about the program that need to be adjusted?
JOHN CALIPARI: We’ll look at it later. This is more about this game.
Q. It looked like Dontaie was playing with more confidence and movement than what he had in recent weeks. Was that just because he made a shot or two early, or is that what you’ve been seeing was coming for him?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we saw it in practice. I mean, the only two people in our practice, Goose and Tom, and they watch. If a kid goes 1-12, they’re sitting there watching.
No one else is in there. All of a sudden he starts making shots again, and you see it. I went on the radio show and said he was on fire for the first time in a month and a half.
It was kind of like we played Transy, and he went on fire, and you got to see it. The person that got to see it more than anybody else was Dontaie. The greatest thing for him, these players cheered him on. They wanted him to shoot. They were begging him to shoot. What a great thing for a team like this.
I’ll be honest with you, they were good with Terrence. They knew some of their minutes were going to go down if he played Terrence. They were fine with it. They were cheering him on.
Q. How did you think Terrence Clarke performed for you, given not being out there for so long? Brandon struggled, it seemed. How difficult was it as a coach to not know what you were going to get from players game to game?
JOHN CALIPARI: That was a tough one for this year. Again, let’s just talk no summer, no fall, 10 new players who had never played together, no Keion. You’re six games in, eight games in, whatever it is, no Terrence Clarke.
What I tell you about Terrence, he was fine until he got a little winded, then there was a play, the ball bounced near him, he had no chance of getting it because he couldn’t even move to go get it. That’s when I took him back out. It’s not fair to put him in and then have him make a play that we lose. It was all coming back to effort and intensity at the end anyway.
I thought he did fine. It’s a heck of a thing that he wanted to try to play to help our team. He knew if we had four games in four days, he was going to be needed.
Q. You talked about how Mississippi State inside, the way they dominated around the rim. Was that just a toughness issue or was Mississippi State doing things to get the ball inside easily?
JOHN CALIPARI: We had worked for a few days about sitting on the post, basically fronting the post. In the first half, we just stood behind the post. We don’t weigh enough, we’re not tough enough. They would turn shoulders into you, elbows into you, move you, and just lay the ball in.
He weighs 260, our guy weighs 195. We said you got to sit on ‘em. You got to get around. What happened in the second half was we started switching ball screens. When you watch what was happening, they were going ball screen, we just switched everything, had our bigs guard their guards and our guards guard their big until we could switch back. That’s where we made a run on them.
In the first half, they were driving it down and throwing it to the post. Our guards got beat on the dribble. Then they were dropping balls to the post. We were standing behind.
The other thing is they rebounded. When you talk about how they scored, they probably scored seven, eight baskets by just offensive rebounding, where we just couldn’t come up with balls.
Q. It seemed like the first half you obviously got
out-rebounded, outplayed in the paint. There was no sense of urgency on the team. I’d like to know what you said at halftime to turn this around. What did you say after the game was over and the disappointing loss?
JOHN CALIPARI: At halftime, the staff was going crazy a little bit. I walked in and said, Just stop, this ain’t about us. This is if they want to do this, we’ll fight. We’re going at you in the post. You’re going to either prove you’re tough enough or you’re not.
We talked about, Do you understand if we get this close, you’re going to watch a different game? I talked about, All right, I’m starting Dontaie this half. Jacob, just too physical a game for you. Can’t play in this game.
Now we went with him, and the team was kind of jacked that we did it. But the reality of it is we fought. We threw it into the post. We weren’t trying to shoot jumpers. We’re coming at you just like you’re coming at us. Then a couple things.
After the game I said, Look, I’m just going to go two things. One, the two plays that they ran in a row for the three that we did not speak, not one word. Then when they did it a second time, you didn’t have to speak. You knew what was coming. You still let them get the shot off?
I said, Now, the way you fought, the way you came back, man, I’ll tell you what, I can’t begin to tell you how it made me feel to watch you do that. But again, what you’re going to learn in this sport, if you physically can’t do it, then you’re not going to be able to do it. You can skills, bounce it, do your thing. If you physically can’t do it, you can’t do it. This was a great lesson.
Sometimes you can physically do it, I’d rather not because it’s kind of rough, guy hits my body, I’m going to push instead of wedge. He drives, I’m going to back away from him. If I have to offensive rebound, he may touch me, so I’m going to stay out here.
Okay, but here is the point: Either you play that way or not this sport. This sport is a man’s sport. The way they played in the first half, we gave ourselves a chance...
Then the only other thing I talked about is academics. It’s time to finish the term. It’s not an option here. You finish the term. You get with Mike Stone, you line whatever up you got to line up, but you finish the term.
Q. You were talking about the comeback. How encouraging is it for you with this roster to see, even though you’re down by double-digits, they come back and make it a game?
JOHN CALIPARI: No, no, I’m sorry. I coach at Kentucky. No, no.
I’m happy for them that they fought to get back in it. We had a chance to win. If you noticed, me or the staff, none of us stopped. We didn’t stop coaching. We’re doing everything we can to give them a chance to win.
Here is the problem: We’re not on the court. They’ve got to finish things off. You have to make winning basketball plays. I’m not shooting a shot that cannot be rebounded. I’m not. I’m either getting fouled or I’m making a basket. Or I shoot it and we rebound it. I’m not taking something that we can’t.
On defense, they’re not beating us at the foul line. We’ve had it happen how many times now? They’re going to have to make a basket, not free throws. And we foul.
That’s not winning basketball.
But, no, I’m the coach at Kentucky. One, being in the game, being down at half, no, I’m not happy. How they fought? I’m happy for them to get them to understand. It’s a great lesson for them. This season was a lesson for them. Hopefully, if they self-evaluate, they know where they are as an individual player. They also know this is a team game. If you don’t play together, you can’t win.
Again, I feel bad for them. They did not get to experience Kentucky. Now, you and I know if we got up five in a normal season, how many people would have been in this building? 17,000 out of 19 would have been Kentucky people. Then you finish off the game.
What would have happened for Dontaie? Just the same thing that happened for Davion the other night where he made all those shots. This place would have been going. They didn’t get to experience it. They only experienced the other side. You lose here, you struggle at home. C’mon, man, we lost four or five home games or more? We don’t lose at home. We haven’t lost that in my entire time here.
This experience for them, they’ve been cheated. But you know what, I’ll say this, they could have taken better advantage of the opportunity that was here playing-wise. I wish I could have helped them more. I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have thought of different things.
I will say I walk away knowing the staff and I, we worked and never stopped for these kids. And it was about them. We never took it personal. Not looking at it like my record. I don’t care about that. I don’t care what my record is forever. I don’t care. This is about how do we help kids, how do we get them prepared for life, for basketball, for life after basketball. How do we get them prepared as a man, as a father, as a husband. How do we do this, what do we do together to do this.
I think these kids were cheated in one way and not cheated in another way. Going through this is one of the great life lessons they had, and they survived it. They had the chance. When you let stuff go, you learn to fight more. Somebody’s going to die, them or us. Well, you must be okay if it’s you because you’re going to take a shot or you’re going to foul. You must have been okay that it was you to die. My teams historically played like if they lost, they were going to the electric chair. This team did not. Times we did. But maybe physically we weren’t capable of that. But you know what, here is what I would say. For them to play how they started that game, then to play the second half the way they played, says something about them. They never quit on anything. They didn’t quit one time this year. Thanks.
THE MODERATOR: We are joined by Dontaie Allen. We’ll take questions.
Q. Obviously this has been kind of an up-and-down season for you with these two Mississippi State games as the highlights individually. What was your mentality coming in today? What did it feel like to play so well, still come up short?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I think the biggest goal coming into today, it wasn’t anything individually, it was I wanted my team to get a win. I wanted us to go on a roll. I’m disappointed. Like, I’m upset, the fact that this team couldn’t show what we actually are, so...
Q. It certainly looked like you were playing with more confidence and aggressiveness today than what you had been. What kind of changed? Was it making the shot to start the second half? What ignited you more today?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I think it comes down to me just getting in the gym more lately. It wasn’t something that just happened today. It was something that’s happened in the past month. I’ve just really been getting in the gym, working on all aspects of my game. I think that’s why you see more confidence in me on the floor.
Q. On the last shot of the game, how comfortable were you on that shot? How much did you think it was going in? Or did you know it wasn’t?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I mean, you can’t really ask for a better shot, especially from someone like me that has confidence in myself. I had it lined up straight. It just hit the back end, so...I don’t know. I’ll live with that. It was a good shot.
Q. Now that it’s over, you’ve had an interesting year, kind of the ups and downs, what was your big takeaway from all of it? What is your final analysis of what this first season playing for Kentucky was like?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I think a big thing for me was it showed how resilient I was. I’ve always known I was resilient, but after going through things I went through this year, it just shows I’m resilient, I’m a strong person.
I just hate that me and the team had to go out like this. I’m still kind of stuck on that, but... I don’t know.
Q. As the local guy, you’re the won who has the best kind of feel for what this program means to fans. What is your message to fans after a season like this, what you can take from it moving forward or use it to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I think that’s one thing. Obviously I’d say to stay with us for the following seasons. That’s one thing, if you really look at the team, you can say they didn’t have the best of records, you could say they wasn’t good. You can have any excuse you want.
Like, this team fought every single game. That’s something you can’t say we didn’t do. You can look literally, there was fight every time. I would just say to stay with us.
Q. For you, as you approach this off-season, what is the biggest thing for you and for your game?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I’m going to stay in the gym. Like I told you, the last month I’ve been in the gym. I’m feeling really good, really confident. I’m just going to stay in the gym literally all summer. I’m going to work to exhaustion.
Q. You talk about the team’s fight. In the first half it didn’t seem to be there. What changed the second half?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I think it was a halftime talk from Cal, but also just everybody coming in as one, everybody coming together and saying we don’t want our season to end like this. Obviously it was on (indiscernible). I feel like after that conversation with ourselves at halftime, everybody seemed to fight. We didn’t pull it out, but there was definitely fight.
Q. This isn’t the first time you’ve shot well against Mississippi State. Was it what their players said to you, what you heard them saying about your shooting and your performance?
DONTAIE ALLEN: I’m not sure. In the game it’s kind of, like, especially games like that, unconscious. My hearing, I don’t really hear a lot. I got tunnel vision. Even if they was saying stuff, I wasn’t listening. THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
DONTAIE ALLEN: Thank you.
Q. Obviously a difficult way to end this. Did you have a moment to reflect, what did you learn about yourself this season, maybe what did this team learn over the course of the year?
DAVION MINTZ: With anything that you want, I mean, there’s going to be struggles. But if you have determination, I mean, you can accomplish whatever you want. That could be small victories. It may not be the ultimate goal. If you stay resilient through the process, challenge yourself and fight, then sometimes it may work in your favor, sometimes it won’t. Either way you just have to keep fighting.
Q. How much did Dontaie’s shooting remind you of the first game at Mississippi State? What did that last shot look like from your perspective?
DAVION MINTZ: I mean, Dontaie just has their number. He’s proven his-self versus them the first time. I mean, it was no surprise that he got super locked in like that because he had really good practices leading up into this first game. I knew when he got his opportunity, he’d be ready for it.
But, I mean, yeah, like I said, Dontaie is a great shooter. I’m super happy for him, proud of his performance today. He kept us in the game.
Q. It was kind of like the same story again. You guys in the last 4:28 only got one field goal. What went on the last 4 minutes to stop the offense after it looked so good for the first 16 minutes of the second half?
DAVION MINTZ: Yeah, Coach’s plan towards that last 4 minutes was kind of feed it to the post. We were running circles. Either taking open shots, if it wasn’t wide open we feed into the post.
We just kind of got a little stagnant, very slow. Just didn’t get good looks at what we wanted. They were coming off of staggers over the top, making shots. I mean, they hit a lot of daggers towards the end. We couldn’t capitalize and answer back, especially when we had the lead towards the last 4 minutes, like you said.
Q. Do you have any sort of idea what the process, the timeframe might be, for you making a decision on whether to use that extra year of eligibility?
DAVION MINTZ: No idea. Just lost. I’m just processing that now. Make sure my body is healthy, decide whenever that time comes.
Q. Cal kind of said just not enough winning basketball plays throughout the year, kind of reflective in the final couple minutes. Would you kind of agree with that?
DAVION MINTZ: Yeah, I mean, that’s right. Us guards, we could have done a better job coming in and helping the bigs rebound. That was a huge part of that game today. I mean, the first half, they had 33 paint touches, they were getting to their spots, getting a lot of second-chance opportunities.
That’s on us to come and crack down. Like coach said, we got to fight. We got to have winning plays. We just didn’t have enough. It came to bite us towards the end. I just felt like they wanted it more than us the last couple minutes.
They were executing exactly what their coach had for them.
Q. Could you talk a little bit about the overall play of Dontaie in the second half. When could you tell he had it going?
DAVION MINTZ: Yeah, after he hit a couple. I’m not for sure, I came to get him around one of the media timeout marks, I can’t remember if it was 12 or 8, he just had a look in his eye like he was ready for it, he just wanted the ball. I was feeling the same way.
I knew that it was important, it’s my job to get it to him. Then when I’m open, shoot it as well. Like I said, with Dontaie, he’s the type of player, he knows when he’s feeling it, you got to get it to him. It’s just a feel that you have.
Q. Can you envision some way that sort of all the pain and the struggle of this season, the hardships that this team went through, might somehow reveal itself as a positive next season for Kentucky, whether you’re here or not?
DAVION MINTZ: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things like now how it feels to be this low. I’ve never lost this many games in my life in basketball, I mean, just consecutively like this. I know other guys on this roster haven’t either. Now you know. You know how it feels. You don’t want to climb back into that hole. Like now, once you dig in, you know exactly how to escape. You just don’t want that pain to come back. It’s terrible. Whether it’s my last college game or not, you just don’t want to go out like that. I know a lot of guys are feeling terrible. I mean, even if that’s the next level or not, you know how it feels to lose like this.
Q. How maddening is it to yet again, a game comes down to the last few minutes, and you guys come up short? That must drive you crazy.
DAVION MINTZ: Yeah, it pisses me off, for sure. I mean, it’s just been like the punch of our season. It’s always the last four minutes. I wish we could have executed it. I mean, I was really looking forward to moving on. Everyone had a winning attitude coming into this tournament. No one had any type of disbelief. Even Terrence coming back to try to fight and play with us. It’s not like guys were not looking forward to making a run. Just last four minutes got us. There’s nothing we can do with that at this point.
Q. I think you guys deserve a lot of credit for continuing to fight back the many times this year it felt like there wasn’t anything to play for. At the same time you said it felt like Mississippi State wanted it more down the stretch. How can both those things be true at the same time?
DAVION MINTZ: Yeah, honestly I have no idea. Sometimes, even though you showing you want it, you just got to show more. If they were at a level 8, they took it to10. That’s why it ended like this.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks so much.
DAVION MINTZ: Thank you.