Cats Prove They Can Win Tough
It came down to toughness, John Calipari said, when Kentucky fell at Auburn.
It came to toughness again in the rematch, but this time the Wildcats answered the bell.
“That was another rock fight,” Coach Cal said. “That was, when you went up for a rebound, you were feeling stuff. Something in your neck. Something in your back. When you were coming off a screen, or you were driving, it wasn’t like a clear lane. We proved to us that in that kind of game, where it’s, we’re letting it go, that we could perform.”
Kentucky absorbed every punch from Auburn Saturday at Rupp Arena at Central Bank Center, then countered. The result was a 73-66 win for the No. 8/9 Wildcats (24-5, 14-2 Southeastern Conference over the visiting No. 15/15 Tigers (24-5, 11-5 SEC), which clinched outright the 49th SEC championship in program history.
“It’s just good for this team,” Immanuel Quickley said. “I think a lot of people doubted us early. We lost a couple tough games in Vegas and people were questioning us if we could get to this point, questioning if we could eventually get a Final Four or a championship or something like that. But we stayed faithful to the grind and trusted the process and we’re here now.”
Four weeks ago at Auburn, the Tigers pounded the Cats on the glass, 42-28, and handed them their last loss in the process. UK won its ninth straight by improving on its largest rebounding deficit of the season and playing Auburn to a draw on the glass, 38-38.
Leading UK in rebounding was Immanuel Quickley, who had the second double-double of his career with 18 points and a career-high 12 rebounds – all on the defensive end. In spite of having a rare off night from the field (3 of 10) and from 3 (1 of 5), the player who has emerged as an SEC Player of the Year and All-America candidate over the last two months found a way to make an impact.
“I just tried to get in there and do anything to help my team win,” Quickley said. “Nick (Richards) was boxing out, EJ (Montgomery) was boxing out, all the guys were boxing out, so I just wanted to get in there and try to help my team.”
Quickley was able to extend his double-figure scoring streak to 18 games because he created so many opportunities at the line, and made them. He was 11 for 11 at the line, leading the way as UK made 27-of-33 as a team and outscored Auburn by 14 points from the charity stripe. In the first matchup, it was Auburn that outscored UK by 13 from there.
Avoiding turnovers was another form of toughness for Kentucky, as the Cats committed just seven all game. Ashton Hagans, though he missed all but two of his 13 field-goal attempts, had five assists and one turnover after having 18 in his previous four games combined and six last time around against the Tigers.
“Now Ashton went 2 for 13, but when he goes five assists, one turnover, three steals, and he defends like, we will win,” Calipari said. “He can go 2-for-13. The only person it bothers? Him. And his head goes down, and ‘I can’t believe it, I missed this dunk.’ Forget it. For our team, it really doesn’t matter. If you defend, you get five, six, seven assists and one turnover and you do the rebounding and all of the stuff you’re doing, we’re going to win.”
Kentucky has done plenty of winning of late, reeling off 16 victories in its last 18 outings. That’s a far cry from mid-December, when UK lost a pair of games in Las Vegas to Utah and Ohio State to fall to 8-3.
“I told them after—look, I never stopped believing in this group,” Coach Cal said. “I said (after) Vegas, ‘We’ll be fine.’ I said it. ‘We’ll be fine.’ But I wasn’t sure about this, where this is going, but I knew we’d be fine. We’d be a team that would be playing and we’d be playing in March.”
With March a day away, UK has surged back into the top 10 of both polls and clinched a conference championship with a full week left in the regular season. Any list of national championship contenders would now have to include Kentucky, which is exactly where Coach Cal always wanted his team to be.
“All the stuff we are going through is good,” Calipari said. “It’s not so much winning our league, as you guys know, or winning our league tournament. It is what are we learning and preparing so when we walk into March we’re ready, like our teams historically have been.”