John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats had not won an NCAA Tournament game in 1,447 days entering tonight’s game, making the opening matchup with the Providence Friars even more important.
Well, the Cats found a way to get the job done, winning Friday night's game 61-53.
The Cats earned this eight-point point victory with great performances from three players. Antonio Reeves led the team with 22 points. Jacob Toppin finished with 18 points while helping limit former Kentucky forward Bryce Hopkins to seven points on 2/9 shooting.
And of course, Oscar Tshiebwe set the program’s NCAA Tournament single-game rebounding record with 25 boards. He almost had as many boards as Providence’s whole team (31).
The Cats will advance to Sunday, where they’ll face Kansas State for a spot in the Sweet 16.
After the game, head coach John Calipari and select players met with the media to recap beating the Friars. Here’s what they had to say (transcripts via UK Athletics).
JOHN CALIPARI: Hard-fought game. That’s a team that makes plays. They mix it up. They played physical. Their guard play, they run downhill. You know, I thought our team fought like crazy.
The first game is a hard game for guys, and we missed probably seven straight shots where we could have extended the game or extended the lead, and we missed them. But I’ll tell you what we did, we made every free-throw down the stretch we needed to make to keep them at bay.
So our out-of-bounds stuff wasn’t the best, but we had a big enough lead that it didn’t matter. Thank you.
THE MODERATOR: Questions.
Q. This is especially for Jacob and Oscar: I know you guys have much bigger plans in this tournament, but what kind of relief was it to get this win after last year?
JACOB TOPPIN: Yeah, it was a big relief, obviously. I knew what this team was capable of, so we got the job done. So props to my teammates. We all stuck together. Even when they made their runs, we didn’t put our heads down. We kept fighting. Defensively, Oscar had 25 rebounds. That’s insane. But, you know, we did the little things that won us the game.
OSCAR TSHIEBWE: Say again the question, please.
Q. Sure. I know you guys have bigger plans for this tournament, but after last year’s loss to St. Peters, what kind of relief was this? How relieved are you to get the win?
OSCAR TSHIEBWE: We just come in. I told all my teammates, I told them, I said this year we come in and fight. Last year doesn’t matter anymore. Now you know this tournament is about fighting. It’s about who fights the most. That’s the one who is going to keep moving. So we came in with the mentality, and we forget the past, and we’re just fighting right now.
Q. This one is for Jacob: I know you had Bryce as your primary defensive assignment, held him to 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting. What’s so tough about guarding him, and what did you do that so effectively contained him?
JACOB TOPPIN: Yeah, Bryce, I love him with all my heart. We got so close last year. He is a really good player. It was definitely hard to guard him because he is so physical.
It didn’t just take me. It took the whole team, being in gaps, being my help, and we just slowed him down. He is a really good player, and it took five players to stop him, not just me.
Q. This question is for you, Coach. What is your description of the dominance that Oscar shows inside the paint on the offensive and defensive end when it comes to the rebounds?
JOHN CALIPARI: Defensively when he is alert and bouncing, he is really good. When he stands behind the defender, he is not really that good in there. They just turn and score on him. I don’t know why he chooses to do that because the other guy is really good, but there are times he stops. I’m probably playing him too many minutes. And then he only scored eight points. He got 25 rebounds.
Like, I don’t know how many times that’s been done in the NCAA Tournament. Do you guys know?
Q. First time since (off microphone.
JOHN CALIPARI: Since when?
THE MODERATOR: 1970.
JOHN CALIPARI: That can’t be right. You know, that’s how old — when I watched The Waltons, that’s how old that is, so it’s about that old. I would tell you that he did something that hadn’t been done for 50 years.
And he is the greatest kid. He didn’t pass one to Jacob. We got on him. He looked and said, I’m good. My fault.
He gets held, grabbed, hold, and they call him for pushing off. He said one time this year he just had enough, but I’ve just enjoyed the heck out of coaching him and seeing him grow as a person, seeing him grow as a basketball player. But this one, I don’t think it was — if in this tournament winning is a relief, what the heck are you doing here? This is joy.
You winning this tournament, it doesn’t matter how you win. There are teams that have gotten knocked out. You just keep playing and have joy and enjoy. We’re not, like, well, we’re going to win because everybody will be mad if we don’t. What? No. We could care less if they’re mad or happy or sad. This is about this group of young people.
I want them to enjoy this experience. No one is going to put added things on their shoulders. I won’t let them. Like I told them, have a ball today, and they did. Now, I just told them, I knew we missed eight straight shots. Like, just make one or two.
We shot 25 percent in the second half and won, which is crazy. You can’t have those gaps in this tournament because you’re going to play a good team that can go score.
We almost had 40 at half. I’m thinking great, we’re on line to get 80. That’s where you want to be. Then we come up dry on layups, stick-backs, jumpers, floaters, but we still won. That’s a good sign for these guys.
Q. Coach, your last comment kind of segues into my question. The players, yesterday you talked about having fun and keeping things loose, and it really looked like you guys were having fun out there yesterday. Can you describe what that was like?
JACOB TOPPIN: When we’re having fun, when we’re not on the court, we’re trying to have fun with each other because it lifts all the pressure off of us. When we’re not worried about the outcome and we’re just playing loose and free, that’s when we play our best basketball. And it started off the court. It started us not worrying about anything but just spending time together.
I said it yesterday, just living in the moment. That’s what we did, and we played possession by possession and came out with a W.
JOHN CALIPARI: Can I say this? They took their earphones off at dinner. I don’t know if one of you told them take them off. There was so much chatter at dinner. There was so much laughter, but it’s hard when you put the earphones on and the hoodie over, and you are looking at your phone to have that kind of experience.
This should be enjoyed. Coaches don’t get here. Players don’t get here. I want them to enjoy each other and to enjoy this.
THE MODERATOR: You want to take a crack at it, about enjoying it.
ANTONIO REEVES: Just bonding with each other. Like Coach said, know took off their headphones. Previous times we ate, guys had their headphones in. It wasn’t too much chatter, but, as leaders, the three of us, we told everybody basically, you know —
JOHN CALIPARI: What was the game you guys were playing?
ANTONIO REEVES: It’s like a little TikTok game or something.
JOHN CALIPARI: They’re going nuts over there. What are they doing? Then they got on the bus and did it, and they laughed so hard, but it makes me feel good because my job is to get them to understand, enjoy this experience.
Now, whoever we play is going to be a really hard game, but we’re not worried about that right now. We’ll go back and enjoy this, meet in my room later tonight, know who we’re playing. Go have a great night. Sleep in. We’ll get up tomorrow and figure things out tomorrow. This has been a great group.
Antonio missed shots, and he looked over, what did I tell you?
ANTONIO REEVES: “Keep shooting.”
JOHN CALIPARI: You better keep shooting. I told Chris, Chris Livingston missed three 15-footers, and I said “keep shooting.” Then he missed another one, and I said “take him out.”
Q. John, you mentioned Oscar’s impact on the defensive boards, but he also dominated on the offensive boards. I think you had an 18-2 end in second-chance points. Obviously, you look at the difference in the game. When you are not maybe making every shot the way you would like, having that ability, what kind of impact does that have on the outcome of the game?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, he has had ability. People want to forget that he had a knee operation and was out four weeks to start the season and should have been out two more. He forced his way back. “I want to play. I’m good. I can do this.” Should have been out two more weeks. And it’s been in the last, I’m going to say, month that he has gotten back to where he was. Now he is going beyond, but, no, he impacts the game.
The other thing is how about you have a guy that will go fight and go get all those rebounds. If he doesn’t get the ball, he may come over to me in a time-out and say, Coach, may tell him to throw it to me. That’s the extent. He is not saying anything. What’s better than playing with a guy like that who will do all the dirty work, do everything, and all he wants is every once in a while, please throw me the ball.
But his impact obviously in the last two years has been enormous.
Q. Coach, in the spirit of enjoying things, how much did you enjoy having the crowd behind you in this state particularly?
JOHN CALIPARI: Those were Carolina and Duke fans too. That’s what was amazing about it.
No, our fans travel. We’ve got great fans. Now, they’re engaged and, you know, they live and die with wins and losses. You have some of them that are out there a little bit, but we’ve got the greatest fans. They travel. They’re excited. I’ve got a stack of letters this year like this when we struggled to hang in, and some of them were unbelievable. I hand-wrote notes to every one of them because that’s our fans.
This group will go crazy, and there’s this group coming over and sending you letters. “Stay the course. You’re doing this the right way. You have these kids. Stay the course. You keep your faith.”
So, no, our fans, they travel. Like, I would have been surprised if we didn’t have this kind of crowd.
Q. John, I’m going to stay on this enjoyment theme. How great was it to have your dad out there?
JOHN CALIPARI: It was even better having him in the locker room after. I said my dad, Vince, and CJ was calling him Vinnie. My dad is 90, had his knee operated on, and that’s the first game he had seen in nine years. With COVID, and all the other stuff, he hadn’t been able to go to games. The tournament was canceled the year before, and then COVID.
He is 90, and I hope — well, he has no wrinkles on his face. We sat there and looked at him. You don’t have a wrinkle on your face. You’re 90 years old. What the heck? He just wants to be told he is handsome. He said, I don’t need to hear that stuff. Just tell me I’m handsome.
My sister and brother-in-law were here too. Obviously, Ellen was here, so...
Q. I know obviously very focused on finishing out that game. I wonder if as they were showing some of the end of the Fairleigh Dickinson win over Purdue on the jumbotron, if you snuck a peek at that?
JOHN CALIPARI: What did you just say? What did you say?
Q. You have a 16 seed FDU beat No. 1 Purdue.
JOHN CALIPARI: I’ve been telling these guys. You don’t watch the games. If you think you’re going to be playing somebody, they’re going to get knocked off. That’s how this works. We can write our own story. We didn’t know that. Did you guys know that? None of us knew that.
We’re not watching games. We’re focused on us and enjoying this moment. Thank you for letting us know, though, they got beat. I didn’t know. I feel bad. Matt painter is a terrific guy, and I know what you go through with that kind of stuff.
In this tournament, are you ready, I said it. Anything can happen. It’s one game. If they played them, FDU, and Tobin has done a great job, Anderson, but if they played them seven times, what? But that’s not what this tournament is.
So people will go crazy when this team was a low seed and a high seed beat them. It can happen. We shot 25 percent in the second half. Could have happened to us.
CJ Fredrick talks about the win against Providence with the media post game. pic.twitter.com/iiA6bQwTcS— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) March 18, 2023
Cason Wallace talks with the media after the game about the win against Providence. pic.twitter.com/BtUklzdxuI— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) March 18, 2023
Jacob Toppin is shinning in the spotlight in Greensboro.— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) March 18, 2023
Jacob talks about the win, the low point he hit in his and says “no one should go through what I went through”, his role on this team, and much more. pic.twitter.com/FxGNKUE2fH
Oscar Tshiebwe talks with the media after the win against Providence.— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) March 18, 2023
Talks about 25 rebounds, Jacob Toppin and how he helps him, and then gets a laugh of the media. pic.twitter.com/2wEiLyORw8
Antonio Reeves speaks about the win against Providence pic.twitter.com/sGBX4zfkhQ— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) March 18, 2023
Daimion collins talks post game after the win pic.twitter.com/VMgF3WXdQP— Dylan Ballard (@DylanBallard_UK) March 18, 2023