FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Kentucky could not have scripted a much worse start on the road in one of the SEC’s most hostile arenas, against an NCAA Tournament team, than to get crushed on the glass and give up 3 3-pointers in the first 3 minutes to fall behind 11-0 at Arkansas on Tuesday night.
And yet, the young Wildcats settled down and pretty well dominated the Razorbacks the rest of the way, drawing even by halftime and outscoring the home team by 26 points over the final 37 minutes to run away with an unexpectedly comfortable 87-72 victory at Bud Walton Arena.
That’s two straight quality wins (and hammer-down strong finishes) for Kentucky (19-9, 8-7 SEC) after a four-game losing streak created a lot of questions about this team’s ability to make any kind of run in March. Hope is renewed now after John Calipari seems to have settled on a winning combination of players.
While starters Hamidou Diallo and Nick Richards played just 10 and 7 minutes, respectively, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (39), Kevin Knox (38), Quade Green (34), PJ Washington (31) and Jarred Vanderbilt (19) led the charge at Arkansas. Gilgeous-Alexander went for 18 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds and Green had 12 points, 6 boards, 4 assists as the two point guards combined for only 3 turnovers.
Knox had his best game since lighting up West Virginia on the road: 23 points, 7 rebounds, 3 made 3-pointers and 2 steals. Washington had 13 points, 10 boards, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals. Vanderbilt had 11 and 9 off the bench. The Cats clobbered the Hogs on the glass (46-29 final tally after Arkansas led 8-1 on the boards to start the game).
It was an impressive and collective effort, perhaps UK’s most complete performance of the season. Afterward, Calipari and the Cats were in a borderline giddy mood. Here’s everything the coach had to say in the post-game press conference (which you can watch at the end of this post):
On coming back from down 11-0: “We kept calling them over. I said, ‘You’re in the game. Can you imagine? You’ve stemmed the tide.’ The thing that I can’t do for these kids: There’s experiences they’ve got to live that I can’t talk them through. When you’re playing all freshmen — I’ll make that statement again: all freshmen — there’s experiences that they have to go through. One of them is being down 11-0 on the road to a team that was so hyped to play this game that it was crazy.
“The second thing: We’re starting to figure out, and especially me, I just told them, I said, ‘You know, we struggled a little bit early, weren’t where we needed to be, and then we added Jarred and it took us another three weeks. And now we’ve settled in.’ About 10 days ago, I had a meeting and gave them their roles. ‘This is your role on this team. Can you do it? Because if you can’t, I can’t play you. And if you need to do more, then I’m not playing you. This is your role.’ And I went around the room and they were all committed. We committed to this.
“Now, they still challenge me at times. Not — here’s what it is: Guy misses three shots, he doesn’t want to take a fourth shot. He has to! You cannot drive and get it blocked or turn it over because you did not want to shoot the ball. Your job is to shoot it. We’ll try to rebound your miss. Or make it! We still fight that. But I’ll tell you, I’m proud. To be able to come in here, this is a hard place to play and the environment — thank God it rained like it did, probably kept some people away — but for us to do this as a young team …”
On if he’s found his finishing lineup: “Well here’s what I’ve done: I did away with the rotation. Because everybody took advantage. They just did what they wanted to do; they knew they were going in. So we have no rotation now. And what I’m doing is: If a guy is playing now, he’s staying in as long as he can. ‘Please sub yourself and I’ll get you back in,’ and I’ll ride the guys who are playing well. It’s that time of year. I’ve just got to ride with the guys that are getting it done.
“And after the game, I told Hami, ‘Hami, we need you, so stay with it. I had to coach to win this game; stay with it. Everybody in here believes in you.’ The team hugged him and clapped: ‘We need you, Hami!’ But you gotta just focus on how hard you’re working and you’re attitude about getting better and we’re with you. But again, I gotta coach the game to win, and I thought Quade and Shai were good out there.”
On the key to huge bench production: “Um, I didn’t start Quade and PJ and Jarred. All of a sudden we’re going to score a lot [from the bench]. I remember somebody telling me, ‘Your bench got outscored by 12.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but we won by 23, so my starters outscored their starters by …’ So that’s something there, but … PJ was great today. Jarred was great today. I thought Nick and Sacha held their own. Kevin Knox, you know, he passed to a couple guys. I told him, this team doesn’t mind if you shoot. They want you to shoot, but you cannot — you’ve got a green light, so you’ve got to get these guys shots when they’re open and he missed a couple guys. He’s playing better, he’s getting tougher. Experiences that he needed to go through.”
On rebounding: “Jarred and PJ went in and we rebounded. Someone says if you want to rebound better, recruit better rebounders. How about that?”
On how they’ve gotten better: “We’re getting better because we’ve settled in on how we’re playing. There were times they looked confused. You know why? They were and I’ve just tried to make it clear how we’re playing and why we’re playing the way we’re playing. A lot of this was on me. When you’re playing freshmen, you can’t blame them. You know? Their terminology, they don’t know. I mean, I said this one — a 1960 term: I want you to play fast, but don’t be in a hurry. What? That’s from 60s and the 70s — play fast but don’t be in a hurry — and I heard them whispering, what is he talking about? These kids, this is all new stuff and I haven’t, I’ve said most of this is on me to figure out. I’m slowly starting to figure out this team and I’m happy with the direction we’re going but this league is a bear. I mean, Arkansas is an NCAA Tournament team and probably a top six or seven seed.
“Now they’ve got to finish and win some games from here on. But, I mean, we’re playing all these teams and it’s like holy cow this league. This is my ninth year, oh my god, at Kentucky that’s dog years, seven, so I’m on my 63rd year right now. This is by far the toughest, most-balanced. Listen, you want to say that Vanderbilt — what? They just beat Florida. You want to say South Carolina — they beat us and they beat Auburn. I mean, there is — I don’t know any scores, what happened tonight? Ole Miss beat Missouri. On the (road). What? Did Mississippi State play tonight? (Won) Are you hearing? What in the world? Listen, this should not hurt our league. This should help our league. In other leagues when they beat each other up they all rise. Why don’t we have nine teams in? We should have nine teams in. I’m just trying to coach the next game. Who do we have the next game? (Missouri) Ugh. They lost.”
On what changed defending the three in the second half: “OK, they got four 3s on offensive rebounds that we didn’t go get balls and they kicked them out, so four of the eight and then the last one was the 3 at the buzzer because I made a mistake. I said switch and as soon as I saw it coming I said, why did you do that? And poor Sacha got stuck up there and there’s no way he can play him. Those were 5 of the 8 threes they made at the half. Offensive rebound, kick out. Offensive rebound, kick out. 50-50 ball, kick out. In the second half we rebounded, so now it was tougher for them.”
On the lineup with all his position-less guys: “Well when you have Quade out there you’ve got now Shai, Quade, you’ve got scorers, Kevin Knox. One of our issues was we weren’t scoring the ball and I just went back to, we’re worried about defense. Unless we hold teams to 32 points we can’t win. So let’s look at an offensive team and let’s see if we can get them to guard a little bit. Just guard somebody and I think we’re getting better.”
On getting better in transition: “It’s what we have to be. We have to get some easy baskets and we have to fly. Now I’m going tell you, they get out on misses and makes as good as anybody the country and we worked for two days, throw it up and fly back, turn and run as fast as you can. Now I thought we did a pretty good job of that today.”