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:
Ashton Hagans’ reaction when he found out Vanderbilt has lost 24 consecutive games in the SEC: ? pic.twitter.com/CS4dvl8Zk4
— Jack Pilgrim (@JackPilgrimKSR) January 28, 2020
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.”