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5 Things From Today’s Pre-Vanderbilt Media Opportunity

Earlier today, Joel Justus, Ashton Hagans, and Nate Sestina met with reporters to preview tomorrow night’s game vs. Vanderbilt. Here are five things they said that stood out to me.

Vanderbilt is bad, but Kentucky can’t afford to look ahead

To say that Vanderbilt is struggling right now is an understatement. The Commodores are riding a seven-game losing streak and have lost their last 24 league games, which ties an SEC record. On top of that, the three-point streak was snapped and star sophomore Aaron Nesmith is likely out for the rest of the season. Regardless, after losing to teams like Evansville, Kentucky’s players know they can’t afford to look ahead to Saturday’s big game at Auburn.

“They’re going to come in here, give us their best shot,” Ashton Hagans said. “They’re all going to be ready going against Kentucky just because of the name that’s on your chest. But with us, we just gotta stay the course. We lost to a team like Evansville, a good team like Utah. Coming back to Vandy, they’re not as bad, but it’s going to be a dogfight like any other game.”

“Anything can happen,” Nate Sestina added. “Any team can come into Rupp and shock us. We have to be prepared to play for 40 minutes. Got to be able to hold leads. I know that’s something we’ve been focusing on. Just come ready to play and be ready to play for 40 minutes.”

Ashton’s face when he found out Vandy had lost 24 straight SEC games was priceless:

EJ Montgomery is “practicing at an all-time high”

EJ Montgomery’s progress may not grab as many headlines as Johnny Juzang or Keion Brooks’, but the sophomore big man is slowly improving, which the coaching staff attributes to extra work in the gym.

“EJ is practicing at an all-time high where he is focused and in a great mindset,” Justus said. “I think the biggest thing that Coach Cal would talk about, wouldn’t you say, EJ, [as Montgomery walks by] is conditioning. [Montgomery walking by say, ‘Yeah.’] He’s a guy that’s put in the work. He’s doing extra work. He’s competing every single possession.”

Nick Richards’ success is pushing EJ and Nate

Nick Richards is playing so well that when he goes to the bench, Kentucky often loses its footing. Nate Sestina said he and EJ Montgomery are putting in more work at practice to make sure the Cats don’t slip when Nick gets in foul trouble or needs a breather.

“It kind of makes me and EJ (Montgomery) work a little bit harder. Coach always says everybody’s minutes are up for grabs. But Nick has really solidified himself in that rotation and has earned the minutes that he gets. He played 39 minutes last game, out of 45, but he’s earned that. So, it’s kind of up to me and EJ to see, if Nick needs to get a break, I can play at the five, EJ can play at the five, it just depends on that. It’s created more of a rotation between me, EJ and Keion (Brooks Jr.).”

How to keep a lead and not lose it

Kentucky’s gotten into a bad habit of getting up by ten points in the second half and letting its foot off the gas. With March on the horizon, Sestina said the team is working on ways to stretch those leads to avoid so many close finishes.

“I think a lot of it is, all of us have to be disciplined. You might have an open shot with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, but we want to run the clock a little bit more. Just understanding and knowing in situations like that and just kind of focusing in on, at the end of the game, OK, there’s four minutes left, we have a 12-point lead. Let’s stretch it to 16 by the end of the game. Obviously, they’re probably going to make some shots, but trying to stretch that lead out a little bit, run some clock, we’ll be good.”

Reflecting on the loss of Kobe Bryant

In the wake of Sunday’s tragedy, both Hagans and Justus opened up on what Kobe Bryant meant to them.

“We were in here with (head athletic trainer) Geoff (Staton), then I just looked down at my phone,” Hagans said. “I saw an Instagram post and I was like, ‘This can’t be true because CNN didn’t really say too much or (anything).’ Going in there with Geoff, he knows a lot, so he was like, ‘You know TMZ, CNN aren’t posting it. It might not be true.’ We were all hoping it wasn’t true. The biggest memory, that was my first jersey. My first time ever playing basketball, I played for the Lakers. He just had a big impact on a lot of guys, the way he fought. He wasn’t backing down from (anything). He was a hard worker. He got this game started. After MJ (Michael Jordan) left, he stepped in, had a big platform. Now it’s King (LeBron) James.”

Justus, who has a young son, said Kobe’s close relationships with his daughters made his death especially poignant.

“I mean, I think as a basketball fan and, I mean, I even think as a father you’ve seen Kobe evolve over his career. I can remember like it was yesterday, getting up at – I don’t know – 3:30, 4 in the morning watching that gold medal game when Kobe went crazy in the fourth quarter. I remember the rest of that day just feeling just this euphoria because USA basketball had hit that low and then Kobe had basically put the country on his back and helped us get the gold medal.

“I think in the last couple years, you watched a bit of an idol or a hero spend time with his child, his daughter, around the game of basketball. I love having that same feeling when my son walks into Rupp Arena with me or when he comes to practice to shootaround and we just go shoot hoops and we can share something that has been so important to me, that was so important to my father and I. When you see somebody like that and then all of a sudden they’re no longer here, you know, it’s just really is a sobering moment in a lot of ways.”


Article written by Mrs. Tyler Thompson

No, I will not make you a sandwich, but you can follow me on Twitter @MrsTylerKSR or email me.

13 Comments for 5 Things From Today’s Pre-Vanderbilt Media Opportunity

  1. CrystalBall
    5:37 pm January 28, 2020 Permalink

    Very unusual for a Vanderbilt team to be hitting only 68% free throws, and 33% 3 pointers.

    • John Capilari
      5:52 pm January 28, 2020 Permalink

      True, but this is a VERY BAD Vanderbilt team historically. They suck donkey ballz. Cats by 25.

  2. CrystalBall
    6:05 pm January 28, 2020 Permalink

    I would be happy with 24.

  3. Blue Jesus
    6:09 pm January 28, 2020 Permalink

    “I think a lot of it is, all of us have to be disciplined. You might have an open shot with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, but we want to run the clock a little bit more.”

    This quote makes me a little nervous… flashbacks from too many tournament losses.

    • runningunnin.454
      9:32 pm January 28, 2020 Permalink

      Agree; trying to kill clock is the problem; the other team is still trying to score. Run the offense.

    • SuperTroy18
      6:28 am January 29, 2020 Permalink

      I cringed when I saw that. It hurts when I see them take the air out of the ball in second halves with decent leads. Play aggressively and beat them by twenty. That killer instinct is so important in order to win a Championship.

  4. lexattorney
    10:22 pm January 28, 2020 Permalink

    I’ll be thrilled with ANY margin of victory. Like I’ve said before, this is the very definition of a trap game…a miserable team with nothing to lose and trying to get their coach his first conference win coming in against a vastly superior team coming off a huge win with a massive game coming up in 3 days.

  5. Racerr11
    7:49 am January 29, 2020 Permalink

    I agree on running clock late in the game when your up it makes no sense to throw up shots with 15 -20 seconds left on the clock. Ashton if you want real news you can’t watch CNN you have to watch FOX news channel.

    • nocode96
      10:10 am January 29, 2020 Permalink

      Ummm, no. CNN is awful, and sensational, but Fox so obviously panders to the far right just like msnbc panders to the far left. No “news” tv station in this country is worth a damn. It’s all for ratings and who can break the must sensational story. If you want real, unbiased news that isn’t skewed left or right, or there for entertainment, you’re not going to find it on your tv. Anyone who states that ANY of those stations are “real” and unbiased is exactly the dolt they want you to be.

    • BigJohnC
      12:31 pm January 29, 2020 Permalink

      I believe racerr11 is referring to Ashton watching D Fox and learn something…not actually a news station lol

  6. JT55
    8:18 am January 29, 2020 Permalink

    Does CNN ever post anything true?

    • nocode96
      10:12 am January 29, 2020 Permalink

      Do ANY of them? TMZ is hot garbage, but when it comes to celebrity death, they are as good as it gets.

  7. 2andToodleLoo
    8:29 am January 29, 2020 Permalink

    I truly hope EJ gets better and hits his stride. But it seems to be a lot of coach speak all season. Trying to pump him up publicly hoping it catches on. Hasn’t worked yet. Hope it does soon.