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Calipari talks UK fans, Tennessee rematch and more after win in SEC Tournament opener

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 3/12/2022 Ben Roberts, Lexington Herald-Leader

Mar. 12—The Kentucky Wildcats got off to a winning start to the Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament on Friday night with a 77-71 victory over Vanderbilt.

TyTy Washington scored 25 points, Oscar Tshiebwe had 12 points and 14 rebounds, and Sahvir Wheeler added 11 assists for the Wildcats, who will play Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinals Saturday afternoon. UK forward Jacob Toppin also had 10 points and three blocks for the Cats despite possibly suffering a broken nose in the first half.

Here's everything UK Coach John Calipari had to say after the Wildcats' victory:

Opening statement: "Hats off to Vandy. Third game in three nights, and they never stopped. They played until the horn, and that's amazing. We thought we could get into their legs at some point in the second half, and it didn't happen. You know, Wright making those deep threes and gave them a chance, but we fought.

"I thought Jacob and Davion played unbelievably well. It looks like Jacob may have a broken nose. I don't know, but he played with it, and that showed us a lot. These two, the way they're playing and TyTy finished the game, playing well, and Sahvir made big baskets. He made that jump shot, made that floater.

"A good win. I mean, we're — we broke down a little bit, but when you talk 21 assists, 12 turnovers, it's good numbers. The one thing plus ten rebounds, but the one thing I'm going to tell you, I kept saying why aren't we up more? We're shooting 50%. They're shooting 38. Why are we not up more? Well, they got some offensive rebounds, and that — they made 11 threes. That's how they were able to stay in the game, and they made them, 11 threes. You would think they were tired. They weren't that tired."

Q. Coach Cal, how significant was it just to, as you start this run, to finally have TyTy kind of back being TyTy? It's been a little while for him.

"It was — you know, I know how good he is, and trying to get him, my concern always is guys that are young don't know how to play through bumps, and they get bumped, and now they're off balance, and then they turn it over and all that, and that's what I got on him about a couple of times in the game. If you're not going to be physical driving, then don't drive. Pass the ball.

"His ability to make shots and make free-throws and make floaters, he is skilled. The defense that he can play because he has got some physical toughness and size makes him where he is on both sides of the ball, but it was good. I thought Daimion — or Davion and Jacob were the two that were the difference-makers, just their energy.

"I mean, it's hard to explain to guys all the time that it's your passion, your energy, your fight, and, well, what about my skill, and I can shoot and all — well, you know, this thing that they want to do, in most cases, it's going to be the team that wants it the most, that plays with the most energy, that plays with the spirit about them.

"How about some of the blocks that Jacob had? It was ridiculous. So it's a good first one.

"I'll be honest with you, Vandy has played so well down the stretch, what they did against a good Alabama team. I knew what this would be. I knew it would be hard."

Q. Just kind of stepping away from the game, I'm not sure if you saw the news, but Cuonzo Martin is now out at Missouri. Just kind of wanted to get your reaction to that and kind of what your thoughts are.

"He is a terrific coach. He is a terrific person, and he will get another job. The issue that's going around right now is the transfer portal. Tom Crean lost four really good players. Now all of a sudden, he is out.

"I said this would happen if we didn't do this right. So you're going to have coaches lose jobs because they're going to lose players. If I were still at U Mass, I wouldn't recruit freshmen because I would have them for one year and someone would take them. I just wouldn't do it.

"In our league, you're going to have guys that are going to bounce around. I'm not saying they shouldn't have freedom to do stuff, but I think there's got to be some parameters, and it's not just, you know — I also think if — how we do this and how we protect coaches in this too because we're trying to help the kids, and all of a sudden, we're in a microwave society right now. We need it now, now. I'm putting 30 seconds on it, and my sandwich is hot.

"What happens, the kids — I got a couple of freshmen that are going to be terrific players, but I'm not — I can't play them as much because the guys in front of them are better, but a year from now, they're going to be ridiculously good, but we're all facing this.

"Now, what's happened with our transfers, and I talked about it, because of the kids that have come with us and have transferred in and have done so well, you know we're going to get calls. Kids are going to want to transfer to Kentucky. I told everybody, you know, you're helping Kentucky by having it this way. I figured that would end it. The minute I said that, they would say, well, then we're not doing it. They went with it. So I just —

"Look, I have great respect for Cuonzo Martin. I have great respect for Tom Crean. I can remember them beating us in Indiana, and it became an Espy, and then we played them in the NCAA tournament and beat their brains in pretty good that same year. I have to — let me make sure I throw that in there.

"You know, they're coaches that can really coach, and as an A.D., you have to look at situations and say, why did this happen? Is he the kind of person, the kind of coach we want? I think that it's a totally different way of thinking about even hiring coaches that were "fired."

Q. It seemed louder tonight than maybe in Rupp for some games. I wonder what you thought of the crowd support and what factor you think that was.

"Let me say our fans in Rupp, we had a 50 some game winning streak, a 40 some game winning streak, and Rupp Arena is a terrific building with great fans, so you can't really take away. I mean, we're winning 95% of our games in that building, but these are the fans in most cases that cannot get into Rupp, so they go to the tournament.

"They also know I don't make a big deal out of this tournament, but they're fine. Just make sure we can stay a few days, and I looked out there, and I know somebody said, well, there's a team that is going to have all the fans. Did you guys hear that? Like they got — they sold — they're going to be the leading ticket. Are you out of your mind? Are you smoking crack? (Laughing.)

"I guess you just say it enough, and it's true. I'll just say it again and say it again and say it again, and it's true. Our fans travel. If we played in Montana, they would be there. I don't know how they get there. I don't know if there's a wagon train. I don't have any idea, but they're there, and they're loud.

"We were getting on the bus today where police had to get them away from the tunnel where we're staying because they were trying to run down next to the bus, but it makes this place what it is, our fans.

"I say it all the time, they're crazy, but I love them. I love our fans, and we have some that aren't the true fans that will — but that's everybody. Our fans, one thing I say — why I say they're crazy? I will watch this tape tonight. I just watched it because I coached it. Then I'll watch the tape one time. We have fans that watch it three times. I'm, like, what's wrong with you people? I watch it once, and I coach the team. You're watching it three times. Yeah, I just wanted to make sure. What? But that's what makes our fans unique and different."

Q. The rubber match coming tomorrow with Tennessee, you guys beat their brains out when you had that Rupp Arena crowd.

"They then beat our brains out."

Q. Yes, they did. You are going to have the crowd on your side again. It's not just the crowd, but where does the energy come from when you're not in your home environment to win a game like this tomorrow?

"You know, first of all, you guys know the respect I have for Rick Barnes. He is a friend, dear friend. I hate to play against friends, but we're both going to have our teams as ready as we can with a quick turn. I mean, we're playing tomorrow at 3:00. Our kids are going to get to bed by midnight. We play tomorrow at 3:00, so it will be interesting.

"We weren't ready up there. I mean, Oscar and — we weren't ready. Their guard play was so good there. It was like — and ours was not the same, and I got out-coached. I knew they would play different, which they move the ball. The ball pops. They're running great offense, and they're physical, and they're a good defensive team. They're good. It will be a hard game for us to win. No question."

This story was originally published March 11, 2022 11:20 PM.

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