LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—John Calipari spent weeks downplaying Kentucky’s pursuit of 2,000 wins, saying his team needed to be focused on getting better, not making history.
Moments after the third-ranked Wildcats routed Drexel 88-44 to become the first NCAA team to reach 2,000 victories, Calipari admitted it’s pretty good when you can do both.
“We weren’t a part of many of those 2,000 wins (but) we had a job to do and that was drag us across the line before that other blue team got there,” Calipari said, referring to North Carolina as he stood on the confetti-strewn floor at Rupp Arena. “This is a special moment for this program and this state.”
The future looks pretty bright, too.
DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson scored 18 points apiece as Kentucky (12-0) roared into history with easily its most dominant performance of the season. Superstar freshman John Wall had 16 points and seven assists.
Kentucky improved to 2,000-635-1 in 107 seasons, just ahead of North Carolina’s 1,992 victories. Kansas is third with 1,980.
“From the beginning to the end, getting to 2,000 wins proves that Kentucky has been the strongest college basketball program,” former Kentucky star Dan Issel said.
The Wildcats entered the record books in style. Cousins and Wall took control early and Kentucky pulled away with the kind of dazzling play that should give it a pretty good head start over the Tar Heels on the race to 3,000.
The Wildcats shot 53 percent, outrebounded the Dragons 45-22 and could have won even more emphatically if Calipari hadn’t started substituting liberally with about seven minutes left.
“That’s as good as we’ve played together,” Calipari said. “We hit a couple of shots early and kept going.”
Samme Givens led Drexel (6-6) with 11 points, but the Dragons shot just 31 percent from the field and spent most of the game as invited guests to Kentucky’s celebration.
It was a party more than 106 years in the making.
The first win was an 11-10 squeaker over the Lexington YMCA on Feb. 18, 1903.
The program needed 66 years to reach 1,000 victories. Students celebrated the milestone with cake alongside legendary coach Adolph Rupp at Memorial Coliseum in 1969.
This party was a little bigger.
Streamers showered the court moments after the final buzzer while players donned black T-shirts commemorating the occasion.
“I saw stuff flying, we were just trying to enjoy ourselves,” forward Josh Harrellson said. “The crowd was going wild. They kept getting louder and louder.”
Maybe it was out of relief more than anything.
Though the Wildcats needed just 40 years to go from 1,000 to 2,000—an average of 25 wins a year—getting to 2,000 first wasn’t exactly a sure thing.
Though the last four decades have included three national titles and seven Final Four appearances, it also has featured a couple of ugly episodes. Kentucky narrowly avoided the death penalty following a recruiting scandal involving former coach Eddie Sutton in the late 1980s.
Rick Pitino revived the program during the 1990s, and for the last few years Kentucky’s march toward becoming the first school to 2,000 seemed inevitable.
But the lead over North Carolina has eroded over the last few years, particularly during Billy Gillispie’s tumultuous tenure. The Tar Heels shaved 30 games off Kentucky’s lead in the last two seasons and began the year just four games back.
Suddenly the marathon had turned into a sprint.
Calipari admitted the math was difficult. He wasn’t sure his talented but largely inexperienced Wildcats could get to 2,000 before the Tar Heels.
Wall and company did their best to ease his mind.
Before a crowd that included Gov. Steve Beshear, former coach Joe B. Hall and program luminaries like Kenny Walker and Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky played with an urgency more befitting late-March.
Kentucky needed less than four minutes to build a double-digit lead behind the kind of intensity that was lacking in a ho-hum win over Austin Peay on Saturday.
“We can’t play that bad against these guys,” Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. “We were awful.”
Wall did a little bit of everything, finding Cousins for open baskets early as the Wildcats raced to a quick 15-3 lead, then showing his breathtaking ability in the open court as Kentucky pulled away.
He scored the last six points of the half, all on layups, all with a relatively high degree of difficulty, including one in which he wrapped the ball behind his back from his left hand to his right hand at full speed before putting it in off the glass.
The ebullient guard pointed toward the stands behind the basket after the ball splashed through the net, and the party was on.
The Wildcats led 56-20 at the break. When Patterson opened the second half with a 3-pointer, the crowd started holding up signs like “UK2K” and counting the minutes until the program’s spot in the history books was secure.
“We just wanted to be the ones to finish it off,” forward Ramon Harris said. “There are a lot of guys and coaches that were a part of this. We just happened to be the ones celebrating.”