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Wildcats recap fun win over Gamecocks, plus postgame notes

All smiles.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Kentucky Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s been a struggle for much of this regular season, the Kentucky Wildcats ended it in style by demolishing South Carolina 92-64 Saturday in front of a happy Rupp Arena crowd.

Kentucky will now enter the SEC Tournament as the No. 8 seed hoping to win four games in four days to clinch a spot in the Big Dance.

Following the fun win, head coach John Calipari, senior guard Davion Mintz, and freshman forward Isaiah Jackson met with the media to talk about one of Kentucky’s best performances of the season.

Here is a recap of what they had to say via UK Athletics.

John Calipari

Q. What did you think of Davion’s (Mintz) shooting display early in the second half? How hot was he in your eyes?

COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I don’t know if you saw us in the huddle where he drove by me and didn’t pull up, and I told them a story in the huddle. I said, “In 1995, we’re playing Xavier, in Xavier, in the hockey arena, whatever that building was called. We fought the whole game and Xavier had us and he runs by me, Edgar — I said, don’t you shoot it, don’t you shoot it, he shot it and made it and we won the game.”

Davion ran by me, and I didn’t see that. I just said, “Easy now. Easy. Easy.” So I told him the story in there, but no, I’m happy for him. I thought guys played better. I’m liking the fact that they went zone. Now you hear me the whole game, swinging, because it not what they do naturally. Every one of them gets the ball and holds it. So we are having to encourage them, pass it. How about this, ball fake, you don’t have to pass and swing. You can grab it, ball fake, and then throw the other way, pass fake, throw the other way, or just get rid of it or how about this one, shoot it. Or catch it and drive it. You cannot catch it and hold and start pointing and you know, or look to the post, look to the post, look to the post. You can’t play that way against the zone. And so we got better and you know, we made some shots. But again we had 17 assists and some of the turnovers we had, you know, we’re in the last five, six minutes of the game. So the press didn’t hurt us. It was — we rebounded better in the second half than we did in the first, and it’s a good send-off for us. I got to play Lance (Ware). I got to play Dontaie (Allen) and again, I mean, poor Dontaie and I love the kid. He and I have talked individually but it was so much on him that — let him go shoot every ball. And these kids, they are — you know, they know, you know, who they are, what they are, what they can do, and any time you’re trying to have a kid do more than he is, it’s just — it’s not fair to the kids, and so what I said today and I told them, I’m playing you. I don’t care if you miss shots, make them; shoot the ball. We’re in practice, encouraging them to shoot because there may be a game coming up where he needs to go in and bang a couple threes because we’re dying right now, and we needed him and I wanted to play Cam (Fletcher). Cam did fine. A little bit winded. The other thing is, normally we’re in games like this throughout the year where I can play Riley (Welch) and Brennan (Canada) and this is like the first chance they got to play, last game of the regular season. And so you know, now it’s, you know, day off and two days to get ready to try to play in a tournament we’ve had success in. I wish it was a full house because we’d have 17,000 fans there. My hope is our fans figure out a way of getting in, anyway. Sneak in, jump through windows, do whatever. Have your mask on so they don’t know it’s you. Get in there.

Q. What do you think this kind of win can do for your team’s confidence? Was today the team you thought we were going to see all year?

COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Well, you know, the last two games, you had a chance to win both of those games and if we had done that, we’d all be saying, like, wow, and so I keep coming back to, when you’re in this boat and it’s hard for young kids, you have to take the approach that, alright, how would you feel if we won those two games? Where would my mind-set be, because that’s where it’s got to be. You have to have that kind of confidence that — and the biggest thing, again, I wanted them to make a run, and they did. They made a couple runs. They got it and then we spread it out. We made shots.

Somebody asked me last night, “Well, who do you go to when you want to stop the bleeding? Who do you go to when you — game-to-game?” In Tennessee, Davion spread the game out for us. This game, he spread the game out for us. And then Isaiah (Jackson) rebounded and went crazy on the backboard and you know, didn’t give them second and third chances.

Q. You were talking yesterday having the mentality of being 0-0 heading into the postseason. How hard is that, that amnesia,? What’s the key to pulling something like that off because even when you have great years you have to convince your team you’re 0-0.

COACH JOHN CALIPARI: We’re just — it’s one game and our first game I’m hearing, it could be one of four or five teams and that first game is going to be ridiculously hard but good, it will be hard for that other team, too. I’m not thinking they are looking forward to seeing my team, especially coming off this kind of game. But, you know, it’s one game, four times. One game. We’re not — we’re going to probably play the first game, noon. We’re not even going to know who our game is until four. And so it’s one game. And then you know.

Q. I wonder, as you’ve watched B.J. kind of ride the roller coaster this season, and a kid, you talk about somebody who had a lot on him, he put some of it on himself when he came out and publicly said I want to be the best player ever, that’s a lot to say for a kid and obviously that’s been mocked some since then. But that comment to have that kind of expectation and go through what he’s gone through, is it hard to do what he did today to be in it enough to perform —

COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Let me tell you why I stick with him — every day I look in that gym whether it’s after practice or morning, he’s in there. Here is the issue for him. It’s not mental. It’s physical. He’s physically not able to do what his mind is telling him to do. I’m trying to get him to make the easiest plays, catch-and-shoot, one-dribble pull ups. If you get to the rim try to get fouled because it’s not anything mental. It is more physical and that, you know, it holds him back a little bit at this point.

But he’s never lost the fight. This stuff has been hard for him. And it’s also eye-opening to know as an individual player, man, physically, this thing, I’m not where I need to be physically. And so you know, we’ve had other guys, it was like Immanuel (Quickley) — this is way harder than I thought and I didn’t have a good year but I’m coming back, and you watch, no one will out-work me. Those are the guys that should comeback, that mentality, PJ Washington, that mentality. I’m not coming back to do show time. I’m not coming back to say, hey, this is my team. I am coming back because I’m going to get better and I can accept that I didn’t play the way I needed to play. And this is way harder than I thought.

Q. Are you hoping then that B.J. is a guy that’s willing to say that to you?

COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Again, every kid — I’ll spend three minutes with each of these kids. I don’t spend that much time on this. I’m not trying to — I like when kids go through the process because teams aren’t going to lie to them. They are going to tell them the truth. Going through the process is good. So, you know, whether it’s any of these guys, you know, you can’t be delusional because if you are, it will catch you. You have to be real and you can’t blame anybody for your performance. You own it. And then you say, here is what I can do and how I can get better. But like right now, I’m not worried about that and neither are these guys. They are worried about taking a day and a couple practices and let’s get ready for a tournament one game at a time, one game, four different days.

Q. You mentioned Cam’Ron Fletcher got some clock today. How has he been doing? How is his attitude and how has he been doing in practice?

COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I’m so proud and I brought it up four or five different times to the team, how is his attitude, and they all clapped. He has been positive, upbeat. It has been a total transformation from when I had to tell him, you need to take some time. Total. Because he knew, you’re not doing that.

Where we were after the North Carolina and games with attitudes and where we are now — I wish we had the summer and the fall — so that we could work on the habits and have kids understand how you respond, how when there’s something around you, the thing that you own is your response to it.

He’s been fabulous and I told him I wanted to get you in. I want you to play. So, he was good. Lance was terrific today. You saw him go in and fight. He grabbed a ball from the different guys, and that’s who he is. He missed a basket or two, but look, we need the guys that will go in and fight. Devin (Askew) was better. I think putting his minutes down a little bit made him fresher and made better decisions.

And Jacob (Toppin), you leave him off, but what he does defensively, his length on the court, we’re really long now. You’ve got a point guard and one guy is 6-7, 6-9, 6-8, and the other guy is 7 foot, we’re really long.

Q. Your teams have had so much success in the SEC Tournament but the one year you had to win to get into the NCAA it didn’t go as well. How do you get guys to buy into one game at a time?

COACH JOHN CALIPARI: We talked to the team — there was another year, the year we had five freshmen play, they made us an 8 seed and we went to the final game, so you’re not accurate in what you’re saying there. But it’s been — every team I’ve coached, at the other two schools, too. We were in the same position that when you look back, we have gone through the war and we have been scarred, but it prepares us. Every game we play ends up being a two-bucket game right down to the stretch. And we’re fighting with every team, and you know what, that’s what prepares you. Now you’re better off winning because you’ll have a little different attitude, but that only comes into play if they make a run at us is, I’ve got to convince them in those huddles to stay the course, to stop the bleeding, to make the easiest plays. Someone make a basket or two. We’re fine. That will be my job. But you know what they are prepared, just like all the other teams here. I think we’ve been in the finals in the last 10 years a bunch, and you know what they went through the same wars that this team went through. The only difference is, about four of them or five of them that we could have won, those teams won. We happened to drop. Everybody says what happens the last three minutes, they make a run and you falter, well, part of that is starting 1-6. Hard to build confidence when you’re 1-6.

Davion Mintz

On the importance of his five 3-point streak …

“That was big for me because I didn’t practice all week. Went down with a little bum ankle. So, to just get that feeling, get to going crazy like that, that was huge for me. That meant a lot.”

On the importance of playing in the NCAA Tournament …

“It means everything. Right before we leave for a trip like this, and you know, we’ve been pretty successful in Nashville, leaving for a span of a week. So, it just gives us that confidence. Still playing from behind, knowing that we are the underdogs and we’re chasing, everyone is going to give us their best when they play University of Kentucky. So, just going in with a good momentum, that’s very important for us.”

On adjusting to playing at the point guard position …

“Yeah, I’m natural there. And sometimes, this season where I would go there, it would be a different feel. It’s just been a while since I played it. And again, I took a year off last year. So, a lot of my reps have been at shooting guard for a year. But when the ball is in my hands and, honestly, and I get a few possessions, I just snap right back. So, I’m very comfortable at either spot I play at, on or off the ball.”

On his mindset when hearing he might move to point guard …

“Coach Cal has been very successful at his job. I’ve had the ultimate trust in him before I came here. I mean, he’s the reason I came to here, to this place. So, whatever decision he made, I knew that it was best for me and for the team. Before he makes a decision, I know he thinks about my best interests as a player and the team. So, whatever he needs from me, that’s what I’m going to do. And whatever this team needs from me, that’s what I’m going to do. If that means score the ball at a high level or find guys at a high level, that’s what I’m going to do. I feel like we made the best adjustment for the team and it’s working out.”

Isaiah Jackson

On what the difference was today that allowed him to stay out of foul trouble …

“Today, I tried to play physical but with the easy stuff. I just let it go. Coach (John Calipari) was telling me like, if somebody ducks me in, sometimes, just let it go. And that’s what I did today.”

On how the team plays against physical teams …

“Of course. I might be skinny, but I like physicality. And also, the team, I think we needed to get one of those games, tough games where we had to go out there and play, had to play tough. Because the rest of the season, that’s how we’ll have to play. So, hopefully we do the same thing next week and we get the wins.”

On how much fun the team had today and the momentum that brings …

“It was a lot of fun. Some of the guys that didn’t really get to play this year got to play. To get to see them on the court, it was a good experience for them and for us. We finally got to take a break the last three minutes and just enjoy the game. And I feel like that’s a good momentum builder going into next week, the tournament and stuff. So, we’re just going to go out there and try to have fun and keep on doing what we’re doing.”

On the performance of Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin …

“Davion, he had a great game. He had four 3s in a row? That was crazy. He’s the one that really stretched the game out for us and made the lead and the deficit so hard to come back for the other team. So, he had a great game. And him playing point guard, I feel like it was good. I think he had seven assists, something like that. He passed the ball really well, so that was good. And Jacob, him playing the two guard, I feel like he, whoever is the man, like the point guard, I feel like he can guard him. So, having him out there is really good for defense and offense, because he can score, he’s bigger. So, it helps us a lot.”

On how difficult it is to take things one game at a time …

“One game at a time. We try not to think about the future. We just try to stay in the present. That’s the only thing that we can change or do anything about is the present. So, that’s what we’re doing. Taking it one game at a time, one day at a time, practice and everything. So, just getting prepared.”

In addition, here are the postgame notes and milestones via UK.

Team Records and Series Notes

  • Kentucky finishes the regular season 9-15 overall, 8-9 in the Southeastern Conference.
  • UK completed the season 5-6 in Rupp Arena, the first sub.-500 season in the venue’s history and the first since the 1926-27 season at home.
  • South Carolina is 6-14 overall, 4-12 in league play.
  • Kentucky leads the overall series 53-13.
  • UK leads 29-2 in games played in Lexington.
  • Next: Kentucky clinched the 8 seed in the SEC Tournament with Mississippi State’s loss to Auburn. UK will play the ninth-seeded Bulldogs on Thursday at noon ET (11 a.m. ET in Nashville, Tennessee) in the second round of the tournament.
  • The game will be televised on the SEC Network.
  • The winner of Thursday’s game will play top-seeded Alabama on Friday at noon ET in the quarterfinals.
  • It’s the first time UK will begin its run before the quarterfinals since the tournament expanded in 2013.
  • The Wildcats will try to win four games in a row at the SEC Tournament to clinch an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, which UK hasn’t done since 1952.

Player Notes

  • Sparked by eight points in the first three minutes, Brandon Boston Jr. finished with a career-high 21 points.
  • He made six 3-point shots, his most 3 in a game at UK.
  • He was 7 of 13 from the floor.
  • He also tied his career high with three assists.
  • Davion Mintz had 20 points, just one shy of his career high thanks to a career-high six 3-pointers.
  • It’s the seventh consecutive game he has made at least two long balls and the 10th time in the last 11 games.
  • He had five 3-pointers in the first 5:09 of the second half.
  • He is averaging 16.8 points over his last five games with a combined 20 3-pointers.
  • Mintz had a game-high seven assists and totals 15 over the last two games, the best two-game stretch of his career.
  • Oliver Sarr had 15 points, his 13th double-figure game of the season, in just 21 minutes.
  • It’s the eighth time in the last 11 games he has scored in double figures.
  • Isaiah Jackson collected 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, his second double-double of the season.
  • It is his sixth game in a row to score in double figures and he is averaging 14.3 points per game during that span.
  • Keion Brooks Jr. added seven points and eight rebounds. He is averaging 8.6 boards over the last five games.
  • Making his first start at Kentucky, Jacob Toppin had two points, two rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot.
  • Freshman Lance Ware scored two points, his first time in the scorebook since Feb. 3 at Missouri.
  • Freshman Cam’Ron Fletcher scored two points, his first tally since Nov. 24 vs. Richmond.
  • Sophomore Zan Payne scored his first two points as a Wildcat.
  • Freshman Kareem Watkins saw his first game action in a Wildcat uniform.
  • Sophomore Brennan Canada logged minute for the first time since the season opener.

Coach John Calipari

  • Calipari is now 339-92 at UK.
  • Calipari has a 784-232 all-time on-court record.
  • UK is 275-54 under Calipari against teams unranked in The Associated Press Top 25.
  • Calipari is 15-4 in his career vs. South Carolina.
  • Calipari’s career record improved to 165-49 in March and April games.

Team Notes

  • Kentucky limited South Carolina to 38.2% shooting. UK is 209-24 under Calipari when keeping the competition to 40% or less, although just 7-5 this season.
  • UK has held nine of its last 14 opponents to 40% or less from the floor.
  • UK scored a season-high 92 points today. UK is 8-1 this season when scoring at least 76 points but 1-14 when scoring 75 or fewer.
  • Kentucky made 13 of 27 3-point shots today, its second-most long balls of the season.
  • It’s the fifth time in the last seven games the Wildcats have made at least seven 3-pointers.
  • This is the first time this season that UK had two 20-point scorers. The last time was Feb. 4, 2020, when Immanuel Quickley (21) and Nick Richards (27) did so vs. Mississippi State.
  • With 17 assists and 17 turnovers, UK is now 9-3 this season when breaking even or better on assist/TO margin. The Wildcats are 0-12 this season with a negative assist-to-turnover margin.
  • UK led by as many as 33 points and won by 28. UK is 288-12 under Calipari when leading by at least 10 points during the game, 7-4 this season.
  • It was the Wildcats’ biggest margin of victory in SEC play this season and second only overall to its 36-point victory vs. Morehead State in the season opener.
  • It was Kentucky’s largest margin of victory vs. an SEC foe since also beating South Carolina by 28 (76-48) on Feb. 5, 2019.

In the First Half

  • Kentucky started Davion Mintz, Brandon Boston Jr., Jacob Toppin, Isaiah Jackson and Olivier Sarr for the first time. It is the ninth different starting lineup used by the Wildcats this season.
  • Keion Brooks Jr. and Dontaie Allen were the first substitutes at the 14:11 mark.
  • With Lance Ware and Devin Askew coming in at 12:47, UK had nine players in the game during the first eight minutes.
  • Kentucky scored on its first five possessions, three baskets by Boston – including a pair of 3-pointers – and two buckets by Jackson, in staking a 12-4 lead.
  • UK, however, missed 10 of its next 12 shots as South Carolina got its first lead at 18-17.
  • Trailing 22-20 with nine minutes to go, UK closed the half with a 16-6 run and went to intermission ahead 36-28.
  • 3-pointers were the difference in the first half, as UK made 5 of 14 while USC was 0 of 5.
  • Boston led the Wildcats with 12 points while Sarr contributed 11.
  • Kentucky is now 6-6 this season when leading at halftime.

In the Second Half

  • Kentucky began the second half with Mintz, Boston, Toppin, Brooks and Jackson.
  • Kentucky opened with a 19-8 run, ballooning the lead to 55-36, forcing a USC timeout at 14:51.
  • Mintz scored 15 of the 19 points, making five 3-pointers, including three long balls in a 42-second span that preceded the South Carolina timeout.
  • Counting the end of the first half, UK had a 35-14 run after trailing 22-20.
  • Kentucky expanded its largest lead to 33 points at 88-55, its largest lead of the season against an SEC opponent.