The Kentucky Wildcats took home a thrilling victory Tuesday night when Mississippi State came to town Tuesday night, as the Wildcats helped coach John Calipari bring home his 800th career win. Calipari becomes the 13th coach with this achievement.
Kentucky had some ups and down in the second half. It also took overtime and some late-game heroics from Kellan Grady, but the Cats pulled it off. Leads stretched from 15 all the way down to a tie game. Despite having to use different lineups due to injuries and foul trouble, the Cats pulled out an 82-74 overtime win.
After the game, Calipari and select players met with the media to recap the game. Here is what they had to say via UK Athletics.
Q. I wondered what you think made the difference? Were you guys going to Kellan [Grady] in overtime or was it going to the hot hand?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, I had told him after he missed four wide-open shots, ‘You’d better keep shooting it,’ because he passed one up. I said, ‘You shoot the ball,’ and the play we ran was for him to shoot the three. I’ve got a lot of confidence in him. He has shown that he can miss some shots and come back and make shots.
It was nice that we were able to play the whole second half with Sahvir [Wheeler]. It was a game I thought would be like this. We struggled to get some baskets when we needed to. TyTy [Washington] being out probably affected that.
But Mississippi State was good. They were good. Did they out-rebound us? No. Oscar [Tshiebwe] had 21 and 22, not bad. I have to get him to talk more. He had four turnovers. He’s got to do better.
Q. What is it about Mississippi State that seems to bring out the best in Dontaie [Allen]?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, first of all, when I put him in, he got beat twice defensively and they missed the shot. I looked at him in the huddle and said, ‘Guys, you understand I want to leave him in, but what?’
They said, ‘Dontaie, you have to stay in front of somebody.’ Then he got out there and defended better and blocked the ball. How about the tip dunk he got? Then he finally made one. How about the two he missed that were so in and out? You can’t miss a ball any closer than he missed.
But I was happy for him. He had not played that much, and again, most of this stuff from me comes down to defensively playing harder than the other guy and playing with unbelievable energy.
Look, I thought the way Jacob [Toppin] went down that he blew his Achilles. And all of a sudden, he’s back jumping around. I don’t know if he was embarrassed because he slipped and fell. They took him off in a stretcher, and he came back and he’s the guy I put on the guy that we had to stop. He did it with one Achilles.
Q. What does it say about your team that on the nights that you didn’t have TyTy [Washington] and didn’t go very well the second half, but you all still closed out a game the way you did?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we needed this game. We said it after. I told the guys that we needed to be in a game like this where we had a chance to end it. We did not dive on the floor for a loose ball. If we got that ball, the game would have been over. We had a guy not go for it. We needed to be like ‘Now we’ve got to fight to get back in it.’ How about you’d better make free throws? How about you guard? We had a guy break down twice late in the game and moved it to overtime, and then Kellan made two ridiculous shots.
Look, we’re going to Kansas, and they have been in a bunch of close games. We had to be in this kind of game to understand how we finish it off. I’m glad I didn’t call a timeout. There were two guys open on the play and we threw it to the wrong guy. We panicked a little bit, but it’s okay.
I needed the second timeout because I had to call it to get Jacob [Toppin] in. So, by saving it, I’m happy I did it. At the time I probably should have called it, but we practiced it. Why do I have to call timeout and go over it again? We practiced it a hundred times.
Q. What happened with Oscar [Tshiebwe]? He was fine and came back in and gave you some huge moments, but he also hobbled back there to the locker room. At that point, are you hitting the panic button?
JOHN CALIPARI: No. I told one of the staff, ‘Go back and get Oscar. Where is he? Go back and get him.’ Again, I said this today: The game ended, and I didn’t ask Oscar what was up. I looked up at Jacob [Toppin] and teased him, ‘Do you have a blown-out Achilles? You went down like a sniper hit you.’ Because you slipped? Embarrassed? Why? What happened here?
Then I looked at TyTy [Washington] and he had said, ‘Do you think you’re going to play this month?’ And that was about it. I didn’t ask him what hurt or what happened. I’m not the trainer. I don’t do it. I leave it and they will tell me later what the deal is. So, I don’t. In other words, I don’t know.
Q. You’ve talked a lot about players being ready to take advantage when their time comes. How much of that is physical, being able to fall out of bed and play well, and how much of it is mental to fight through and be ready, even though you have no idea when your chance is coming?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, you have every excuse if you don’t play well. If you’re not either a rotational guy or playing a lot of minutes, what do you say? What would you say?
Q. Somebody else’s fault?
JOHN CALIPARI: ‘Not playing me enough.’ It’s your fault. You’ve got to take responsibility first for your performance. You’ve got to. Are you playing harder than the guy you’re playing against or is he playing harder than you? Well, just let him play through it.
Okay. So, he plays four minutes, gives up two baskets and gives up a rebound and doesn’t make a shot. Wait a minute. This isn’t 8th grade. Again, own your performance. It’s hard when Lance [Ware] – who played great again today – it’s hard when you don’t know is Oscar [Tshiebwe] going to play so well that I’m not getting any minutes or many minutes, or is he going to struggle and be in foul trouble and I’m ready?
Every day, Lance Ware is in the gym getting better. Every single day. I look out my window and that kid’s in there. I have all the confidence in the world. I play Daimion [Collins] today first, but I told him I was going to do it. I told Lance, ‘I’ve just got to get that kid on the floor and get him to break through a little bit.’
We went with Bryce [Hopkins]. He did okay, but he didn’t come up with rebounds and balls. But he dunked that one. There you go. Rebounding and defense and diving on the floor – it doesn’t take skill. You don’t have to think. You just have to scramble and hustle and that’s what I’m trying to get these guys to do.
Here is the other thing: A lot of these guys have the weight of the world on them. Everyone is like, ‘You’ve got to do this and you’ve got to do that and you’ve got to play like this and you’ve got to say this.’ They have got the weight of the world. They don’t even tell you that. My job is to hold them accountable but also figure out ways to talk about how we get this done.
For 30 years, I’ve had Bob Rotella, a sports psychologist, work with my team, and has recommend players. Go call them and talk to them because most of it is being mind-ready and mind-fresh and knowing if things don’t go well that I’ve worked hard. How about positive self-talk?
Now, it’s hard if all you’re hearing was, ‘I told you so,’ and that’s the worst. And if that’s what you hear, it’s hard for you to have that positive self-talk. But you’ve got to have it. Because if you don’t love yourself, and you’re not good to you, no one is going to be good to you. You’ve got to be good to yourself.
That means blocking out the negative and be really positive. That’s what I’m trying to get all these kids to do and what I try to do every year. But this place – it’s big. Every game is like Auburn, and they are all like this, and every game we play, someone is going to play their best. The last five games, Mississippi State shot 24% from the three. What did they shoot today? Thirty-one. But they made three at the end of the game to put it to overtime.
So that’s what’s going to happen. Like I told the guys, I don’t want to see anybody. Don’t call me. We’ve got an off-day. Leave me alone. Let me get my mind set for what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to travel to Kansas. Do we play on the road after we come back from Kansas?
We’ve got a home game. Oh my gosh, we’ve got a home game? Wow. I thought they would put us on the road after that.
Q. I’m pretty old but I don’t have a chance to talk to many coaches that have won 800 games. What’s it mean to you to get your 800th win?
JOHN CALIPARI: It means I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve had a lot of good players. Publicly, I’d like to thank all those players from UMass, all those players from Memphis, and all those players here that have won all these games.
When you’re coaching good kids and when families entrust you with their sons, you’re blessed. And to be in this job with this fan base, I am blessed. I’ve been doing this a long time, like 30-some years. I’m 56 now, but I started young. I was 18 when I first got my first job.
Q. Early in the game, Sahvir [Wheeler] gets two fouls, and Daimion [Collins] is three in the first half. Wondering, you’re already short on TyTy [Washington], what’s going through your mind?
JOHN CALIPARI: Thank goodness Dontaie [Allen] has good thoughts about this game. He plays well against these guys. I don’t know why, but he does. I want to keep giving Bryce [Hopkins] minutes because I want to keep giving him opportunities to break through. But at the end of the day, Dontaie did better. He did more, so I left him in.
Q. We obviously saw Kellan [Grady] hit the big shots, but I’m wondering if there’s something else that you saw at the end. When you had to make plays, was there something besides the shots, something small that we might not have seen that you really liked about your team?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, they wanted to throw the ball to Oscar [Tshiebwe]. The problem was, after we did it a couple times, they had two guys on him and the kids adjusted. I liked the fact that we did some stuff in a huddle that we had not really worked on, and they came out and executed and Sahvir [Wheeler] got that layup.
I’ll just give it to you: These guys in these huddles, I’ll say, ‘What do you think about this?’ They said not enough time. We don’t have the time for that. Let’s go, and let’s do it quicker, and I said okay.
That means they are empowered. Every huddle, Sahvir [Wheeler] is talking to his team and when TyTy [Washington] is there, he’s talking to the team. They are all talking to Oscar. It’s a good group.
Keion [Brooks] played better today. But I said, look, he’s even better than that, but he played well. But be better. Making those two free throws – that was a big deal.
On obtaining a win after a rough second half …
“It shows that we’ve got some resilience and we’re able to stay poised when, let’s be frank, our last 10 minutes of that game were atrocious. Well, borderline. Not good. I think overtime was a reset. We beat them by eight in overtime. We made big stops, we got a couple of loose balls and turned them over a couple of times. So, it was a good one for us.”
On how rewarding it is to hit a big shot in a tight game ...
“It’s a rewarding feeling. We either went at me for a shot or for a scoring opportunity or we went at me to then post Oscar [Tshiebwe]. So just knowing that Coach Cal, the staff, and our team trusts me to be in those situations, whether it’s a passer or a shot maker, gives you a little added confidence before you let it go. Just having that awareness that there’s that type of trust, I think today I showed that that trust is worthy.”
On how it feels to be nicknamed a ‘grandpa’ at 24 …
“Forgive me for correcting you, but it’s actually ‘grandad.’ But I have been ‘granddad’ since June, and I embrace it. There’s a part of me that’s an old soul, even among 24-year-olds, 23-year-olds, my friends from back home, and my friends that I graduated with at Davidson. In fact, they used to call me a dad because they were my age. But at any rate, it’s all good fun.”
On why the last 10 minutes of the second half were atrocious ...
“I think we were always playing not to lose. I thought there were a couple of rebounds and loose balls that we might have missed out on. We got stagnant on offense, and it didn’t result in good things, evidentially. So atrocious may be a little too harsh, but we did not play well in the final 10 minutes. I think we were up 53 to 38 at one point, and it kind of just went south from there. We didn’t put our feet on their throats and finish the game. But, on the contrary, it was good for us to get a game like this and prove that we’re equipped to make the right plays, get imperative stops down the stretch, and close out the win. So, you have to take the good with the bad with tonight, and I’m really proud of our team.”
On winning in overtime …
“The most important thing for me I will say is to communicate. We have to communicate. We got locked in. You’ve got to stay focused. A game like this you might lose if you’re not really focused, and our communication now really is on playing defense. Defense will win the game, as you see in the last two rebounds. I fight for it. I fight for it because I know we needed this rebound for us to win this game. We just have to be engaged. I think we were really engaged at the end of the game, so that’s why we bring the victory.”
On looking ahead to the Kansas game…
“We’ve got to be engaged. I’m pretty sure TyTy [Washington] is going to be with us in Kansas and we’re going to be waiting sometimes. We get loose out there, we get lost out there. Because there’s a lot of pressure, and if you don’t know how to take your pressure, he’s going to be tough for you to get it to be in a game like that. That’s why Coach was trying to calm everybody down and see if we were good. We were good. So, I think Kansas is going to be a great matchup for us. We’re going to go play and go fight. If you’re not really willing to go die and fight for your life and fight for these people, you’re never going to get anything in your life. You’ve just got to fight for everything.”
On playing in the SEC …
“I think I’m doing my thing. The only thing that people cannot do is you cannot stop me from getting rebounds. You can stop me sometimes from scoring but rebounding belongs to me. You cannot stop me. That’s the one thing I fight for the most, and I think I still do what I can do. I still work hard. I’m in the gym 24 hours trying to figure out how I’m going to do the next game. I’m in there like, ‘Coach, show me something. How do these teams play? How can I do better this coming game?’ We always talk with the coaches. If they stopped me from getting rebounds, which is going to be tough, I think the way to stop me from getting rebounds is getting me in foul trouble.”