Karl Anthony Towns said it was desperation at the end that led to Kentucky making three consecutive stops against the best offensive team in the country. Coach John Calipari said the game showed that Kentucky might have an undefeated record but they aren’t perfect. In the end, the Wildcats won 68-66 over Notre Dame and set up a date in the Final Four with Wisconsin. Here is a transcript of the post-game press conference with Calipari, Towns, Devon Booker, and Andrew and Aaron Harrison:
COACH CALIPARI: I’m really proud of the guys. All we did, we were just scratching to stay in the game. I don’t know if our breakdowns, until I watch the tape, were us or Notre Dame being that good offensively. And I’ll tell you the thing on the side pick and roll and the empty side pick and roll, that’s on me as a coach. We never figured it out, we tried doing some different things and they just kept scoring on that, and Mike did what he should have, just kept going back at it. It was nice to see Aaron do what Aaron does, just a huge 3. It was great to see Andrew play an okay game, but make the plays down the stretch. It was great to see in the second half, us able to throw at Karl Towns, and they either were scoring or you got to leave somebody. And then Tyler makes that 3 in the corner. But we were just fighting to stay in the game, to be honest with you, and it was nice to see how it finished for these kids.
Q. Karl, could you just talk a little bit about what changed in the second half? You were 2 for 5 in the field the first half, I don’t think you missed a shot the second half. What changed offensively there?
KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS: I just did a better job of getting better position. Also I jumped a lot more, used my legs. I was liking that in the first half. And in the second half, I just trusted what the coaching staff told me, and I guess the results speak for themselves.
Q. For Andrew and Aaron, how does this win compare to last year’s win?
ANDREW HARRISON: It’s pretty similar. Michigan last year had a great offense as well. Two great teams, came out a winner. We didn’t play our best game but Notre Dame is a great team.
AARON HARRISON: Yeah, I think we played a lot better last year actually. We didn’t play that well, but we just figured out ways to win last year and this year, and that’s what we’ve been doing all year.
Q. Andrew, if you could just talk about the last play offensively and also the defense on the last play on their shot, too? Just kind of walk us through both of those things.
ANDREW HARRISON: I mean, I think, Coach told me to go at 9 and I think I went a little bit before that. It was so wide open that I just tried to take it, and I got fouled and got to make two free throws. Second, that was all Willie, I was yelling his name, you know how great Willie is on defense, he was running right with him.
Q. For any of the players, in the second half you didn’t have three consecutive stops the whole half until the end when you needed to have those three consecutive stops. What was the difference in those three possessions?
ANDREW HARRISON: I don’t know. Desperation, probably. We had no choice or we were going to lose.
AARON HARRISON: Exactly what he said. Just I mean, I think we just focused, when our back’s against the wall, do what we have to do to win the game.
DEVIN BOOKER: Basically just what they said. We’ve been in that position a few times this year. Each time we try to start with stops, and we know that will lead to offense and that’s what we’ve been doing.
KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS: Desperation.
Q. Aaron, is it almost good to have a game like this, that you guys know that you can dig deep and come back and pull it out like this?
AARON HARRISON: I don’t know about that. I mean, I would rather play well and win by a lot than play a close game like that. But yeah, I mean, we know our will to win. And it just showed us we never give up, and we fight to the end just like any other team.
Q. Karl, did it get to the point in the second half you just felt like if you got the ball you were going to score, they just couldn’t stop you? Did you have that feeling?
KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS: It did. I mean, I felt very confident in myself and just made confident moves. Like I said, I listened to the coaching staff and I was just making shots.
Q. For Aaron and Andrew, just a quick thought, you’re going back to the Final Four. What does that mean to you to get back there again? I know that’s one of the reasons you said you came back.
ANDREW HARRISON: It means it’s a blessing. Go down there and try to focus and try to win two games.
AARON HARRISON: Exactly what he said. We’re definitely not finished. We still can get better with two more games left in the season. We have places to improve, and we will improve this weekend and go down there a different team.
Q. Could you talk about that last sequence with Andrew, because it didn’t seem like one of his better games and he made the two free throws for you. He was running down there with Willie, too, on that defense. Is that kind of what you expect from him?
COACH CALIPARI: They didn’t have a timeout, and I wasn’t going to call one. You guys know how I am. I wasn’t to call one and let Mike design something crazy, so we weren’t going to call a timeout. What we did on the last play was, with eight to nine seconds to go, he was to take it and we had some stuff working on the back side. I said, if you don’t have it, you’ve got stuff behind. We had something for Willie over the top. But he drove in and he got it, he got fouled. And it was a foul, I looked at it, he moved. It was close, but he moved. Andrew tried to avoid him, which made him move instead of just jumping, which is something we do work on a lot but he’s been great at.
Q. Obviously they’re a really good offensive team, but what was it about them defensively that gave you problems early on?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, we knew we were going to throw to the post every chance we could, and we just missed — they were physical enough to cause us to miss 10 one footers in the first half. You know, that was an issue for us because now they didn’t have to leave off the wings. They had to leave Tyler Ulis and give him that three to guard Karl. That’s how you’re trying to play but if you can’t make the one footer, they don’t have to do anything. The other thing is they’re physical. Shots went up, they fought. We out-rebounded them by one, but that was lucky, we only get 10 offensive rebounds. So they’re a better defensive team than you give them credit for and they’re also a tougher team, physically a tougher team. Their guards bothered us, especially early in the game, they got up in us.
Q. Coach, Aaron or Andrew said that they’re going to get better this week, because of this close game. And Willie in the dressing room said he’s glad that you have the week to prepare for Wisconsin. Because of this close win, assuming that you always have their attention, do you think you’ll have their attention even a little bit more?
COACH CALIPARI: Yeah. Trey didn’t play particularly well. I thought Dakari did some good stuff. I didn’t give Marcus enough time, but the game didn’t dictate that I should because of how it played. I’m glad that Devin Booker’s making shots, but we’ve got to get a little bit better in this pick and roll defense. I think, again, I don’t remember a whole lot about Wisconsin. I mean, I’ll watch this game tape tonight and then probably start on Wisconsin tomorrow at some point in the day. I know Bo Ryan, and he’s a great friend, and how good he coaches. And I’ve said all along I thought the three best teams were us, Wisconsin and Arizona — and Duke. And other teams are right there, but those four seem to be a little bit better than the others. And those two, I feel bad for Arizona because they had to play in that regional final because they are a Final Four team but that’s how this stuff goes sometimes.
Q. You won a lot of close games last year in the tournament but you were a No. 8 seed last year. This year you’re an undefeated favorite and you were behind most of the second half, behind by six, six minutes to go. Pressure’s all on you. Did you feel that then, do you think your team felt that or do you think your team just played the way it would play if this were January in Rupp Arena?
COACH CALIPARI: My mind is never on we may lose. My whole mindset all the time is how are we going to win, how do we win this game. That’s all I keep saying to myself, how do we win the game. I want them to know we’re not playing not to lose; we play to win. That means be aggressive offensively. And so I’m telling you, I was trying every combination I could just to keep us in the game. And then we had to have the 3 by Aaron. We had to have the 3 by Tyler. We had to have and-1 by Karl, think about this, to stay in the game. So they had to make the plays, but we were breaking down defensively. I couldn’t keep Trey in the game. Tyler jumped on the guy’s side. It was an and-1. We were breaking down defensively ourselves. And again, that side pick and roll stuff is not my team, that’s on me. But they did enough, and they wanted to win, they do have a will to win, and I know that. I know that, I’ve coached them, I know they’ll make plays. It’s just a matter of you have to keep the game close enough so they can.
Q. You guys, I think, made your last nine baskets and you got three stops at the end of the game. A lot has been made about how young your team is, and maybe they wouldn’t be able to execute like that down the stretch. What does that tell you about your guys?
COACH CALIPARI: Well, when you have Willie, Aaron and Andrew in there most of that time, but I had Tyler in there a lot of the time, and Karl. And then we had to switch Karl in and out because of the foul trouble, I wanted him off the floor. Not only foul trouble, he was defensively hurting us. But I’ve just seen these kids make plays. I trust them. I trust to put them in, instead of running a play, put them in a position to make a play, which is what I try to do.
Q. Because of the number of wins that you’ve had and some of the easier games or not close games in the tournament, do you think your guys get enough credit for their determination and will?
COACH CALIPARI: I don’t know. They do from me. I think that’s all they care about right now. I mean, again, we’re — we know we’re not perfect. We’re undefeated, but we’re not perfect. I mean, we showed that tonight. We’re really young and showed it tonight a ton. We had some turnovers that were like, “What did you just do? You just threw them the ball.” We did some things that we work on every day not to drive baseline. We drove baseline, stepped out of bounds. There were things that we did that showed our youth. But that being said, you still have a will to win. I’ll tell you, if people don’t realize it, Andrew and Aaron still drive this team. Willie does his thing, Karl was tremendous today, but those other two kids drive this team. Tyler comes in, Devin comes in. Those other two, they drove us last year to the final game, and they’re doing the same thing this year.
Q. Coach, they said the word desperation a couple times. Is that a word that floats around the program? Has it floated around this year, and how do you handle it. You reacted a bit when they said it?
COACH CALIPARI: I don’t think we ever talk about it. They must have felt like it’s time. Now, they were in every huddle saying, “let’s go, it’s time.” They were saying it to each other in every huddle. My thing is in these games, we can’t help the other team. We can’t. We helped Notre Dame a lot today. But until I watch the tape, I think they’re a great offensive team and they did some stuff and got us in some different positions and situations that were not good. But again, I don’t ever use it. My thing is just keep playing, man, keep playing. We’ll figure it out.
Q. How good did you think Karl was the second half?
COACH CALIPARI: He was unbelievable, and my staff was telling me, take him out, he’s not guarding him. I was like he’s the only guy scoring, I’ve got to leave him in. So I was trying to leave him — then he started taking himself out on defense, he was like, “take me out.” But, again, offensively, by the time this season winds down, I want people to look and say, wow, a big man, can make free throws, can score around the basket, can play pick and roll defense, not today but he can. Blocked shots, makes his free throws. That’s what you want, and I’ll tell you, he’s the greatest kid, he’s a great kid, really is.
Q. John, Willie at times it seemed like he struggled a little bit defensively or whatever but he made the plays at the end, he got his finger on Grant’s 3 and then chased Grant on that final play?
COACH CALIPARI: Let me just say at halftime, I’m walking in and they’re looking, we’re not playing loose enough, we’re not playing loose enough. I said you’re playing too cool. It’s hard to be loose when the other team is playing harder than you. And I felt their guards were playing more aggressive on our guards on both offense and defense. I thought our bigs were standing straight up and down, and acting like, wow, we can get these guys. I said, you can’t play loose unless you’re competing at a high level, then you can let it go offensively. Be loose and aggressive. We weren’t because it’s hard to be loose when a guy’s up in you and you’re just trying to make a pass. And I think Willie and Andrew, they all fell into that in the first half. And give Notre Dame credit, they came right after us, they were not afraid, they were confident. We made some plays down the stretch. We don’t make them, they’re going to Indy, and we’re going home.
Q. One of your former players will be playing tomorrow, in Wilshire. What have you thought of what he’s accomplished this year?
COACH CALIPARI: I’m so proud of Kyle, I can’t begin to tell you. My wife and I watch his games and I text him, we text back and forth. What he’s done, I knew he could do. You know, when kids make decisions to stay or leave, I don’t always agree. And I’m talking NBA or choose to go to another program, but at the end of the day, I am for Kyle Wilshire, that’s who I’m for. Unless we’re playing him, then I hope he misses every shot. Other than that, I can’t begin to tell you — and Mark is such a great coach, getting him to defend, elevating his game, not letting him settle for just being an offensive player, but being a guy that can score next to the basket, can pass, can shoot. Mark is making him a well-rounded player, something obviously I didn’t do as good a job of. But I’m proud of him and really happy for him.