Fresh off a statement victory over Texas Tech in Lubbock, the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats (15-4, 5-1) will return home Wednesday to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores (8-11, 0-6). 

Wednesday’s game will be the first of two meetings between the two schools this season. Last season, Kentucky swept the two-game season series from Vanderbilt with a 56-47 victory at Rupp Arena and a blowout 87-52 win in Nashville.

The last time Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt was Feb 27, 2016, in Nashville. The Commodores have not won a game at Rupp Arena since 2007 when Tubby Smith was in his final season as head coach of the Wildcats.

After reaching the NCAA tournament in 2017, the Commodores have fallen on hard times. Vanderbilt’s last conference victory came on Mar 3, 2018, when they defeated Ole Miss in Oxford. In 2019 the Dores’ went a winless 0-18 in conference play, which led them to fire head coach Bryce Drew after just three seasons.

This year, Vanderbilt is coached by former NBA standout Jerry Stackhouse who’s in his first year coaching college basketball in any capacity. Stackhouse can earn a signature victory if his team can go into Rupp Arena and take down the No. 13 Wildcats. 

Tuesday, assistant coach Joel Justus, guard Ashton Hagans and forward Nate Sestina met with the media to preview the matchup and talk about the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant.

Read everything they had to say below courtesy of UK Athletics. 

Assistant Coach Joel Justus

On letting the guys know this game is still a competition …

“I think our guys know now that every game is important to somebody else as well as important to us. I think we’re a group of individuals that are trying to become better every single day. Tomorrow night just gives us an opportunity to go out and compete, play together, to try to become the best version of ourselves individually as well as collectively whether you’re playing Texas Tech, whether you’re playing Vanderbilt or whoever else you’re playing next. The most important day for us is the present day and I think our guys are focused on having a great practice today and then tomorrow we’ll get, like I said, another opportunity to get better and we’ll prepare for that today.”

On what specific improvements he will be looking for…

“I think you look for individuals to continue to be more competitive. That’s something that when you have young people, every game you step out there it’s a competition. I think when guys are still continuing to master their craft it’s about being professional every single day. If this is what you want to become and that’s the kind of question Cal asks each one of them every day, do you really want to be professional? How hard are you working to master your craft? How hard are you working to be professional? I think that’s the challenge our staff gives each one of these guys every single day. So I think each day that we step on the court you’re looking for individuals to rise up, to compete a little bit more, to accept the challenge whether it be from Coach Cal, whether it be from Kenny (Payne), Tony (Barbee), myself or a teammate. I think every day we look for improvement, and I think by in large we’re starting to see that.”

On how Vanderbilt could threaten Kentucky…

“I think every team at this level has talented players. They can shoot the ball, so you gotta be locked in defensively. You don’t want to give guys easy baskets. I think that’s something we continue to stress to our young guys is you don’t want to allow a team at any point, whether it’s a home game or a road game, to see the ball go in hole without having to really go through a stressful possession. If they go through side-to-side offensive, if they set great screens, if they execute their offense and make a shot with a hand up, we’re contesting the shot, you smack them on the back and run down and play offense. What you don’t want to do is have live-ball turnovers that give them a chance to score the ball where your defense isn’t set. You don’t want to have mental lapses. You don’t want to have mistakes where you’re not having the opportunity to be at your best. So I think any time you’re playing a team in the Southeastern Conference, they’ve got talented players, they’ve got a coaching staff that’s put together a game plan that is going to try to take our strengths and turn them into weaknesses and then try to take

our weaknesses and exploit them. Same thing that Coach Cal is doing right now for our game tomorrow. So I think our guys, our young guys are starting to understand, and that’s a big credit towards our veterans that are stepping up and making sure these guys are ready to play.”

On EJ Montgomery …

“I think it’s a young guy who is still trying to figure out how hard this is. The burden of success and failure are right on your shoulders for however many minutes you play. You’re being challenged and you’re being put into a position where you have to produce. EJ is practicing at an all-time high where he is focused and in a great mindset. 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. I think as a staff that’s all we can ask for, and you have to do it in practice before you do it the games; and you have to do it for five minutes at the beginning of the game and maybe you have to do it at the end before you can do it for 20 or 25 or 30 minutes or however many minutes it is. You look at a guy like Nick Richards who has now had a demonstrated performance over and over again and you gain confidence from that. I think EJ’s right behind him.”

On if the staff is encouraged by Montgomery’s progress …

“For us, we believe in EJ and I think sometimes, like I said, it’s not the coach or the assistant coaches that are putting confidence in these guys; it’s themselves building their own confidence. That comes from being in great shape. That comes from putting in the extra time on your own or with coaches to then showing the ability to be able to do it in the games. That’s where our guys are right now, is they’re continuing to gain confidence in the games. Like I said, tomorrow night’s another opportunity to go out and play together, gain confidence and ultimately, hopefully come away with a win.”

On if the players learned anything from the Evansville loss …

“I think when you go through a season, you’re always able to teach. As coaches, that’s not something we directly talk about. But it happened. Just like the Michigan State game happened, or now most recently the Texas Tech game happened where you have opportunities to learn. You have opportunities to teach. I don’t necessarily think, and I think Coach would kind of echo my statement of saying that I don’t know that one game sticks out more than any one other. Maybe to the players it does; maybe that’s a question for them. But for us, this is a process and that was a step in our process of becoming a better team.”

On Dontaie Allen’s status …

“I mean, he’s practicing. He’s getting better. I think a guy like Johnny Juzang is going to have an opportunity to play more minutes and he had some great minutes in the game the other day. I think Keion Brooks (Jr.) was a little bit under the weather down in Lubbock, but I think he’s a guy that’s going to be thrust a little more into that kind of wing position, where (earlier) he was playing a little bit of a stretch four. But you got great minutes out of Nate Sestina the other night. I think for us, our guys come into the games and they’re all ready to play. I think you’re excited about Johnny. You’re excited about Keion. And those settings really, when healthy, both of those guys have had some opportunities taken

away from them by illness and I think you move forward and hope that they’re all ready, that we’re all healthy tomorrow night and moving forward.”

On the chances of Allen playing this season …

“I think Dontaie is working hard, you know, and everyone is on their own path and their own timetable. When Dontaie’s ready and willing to be ready to go, I think for us there’s no rush on our part and I don’t know that there’s any rush there. You want to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind, the right physical state of mind, and we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Nick Richards on being more comfortable …

“Yeah, I mean, Nick is a guy who has put time in, who has, once again like I said earlier, has had a demonstrative performance and has had success doing what Coach Cal has asked of him, what are team has needed from him – and he has done in major minutes. And when I say major minutes, crucial points in the game. You’re only going to gain confidence through that, making big free throws, coming up with big rebounds, and little things for Nick where he gets rebounds and throws a perfect outlet pass. Gets an offensive rebound first play of the game and we kick it out. He has another great kick out to Johnny Juzang for a wide-open 3 early in that half. You’re starting to see Nick’s overall game evolve, not just the bits and pieces where he’s getting baskets or having success rebounding. I think you’re starting to see Nick become a complete player, which I think we’ve all thought he could become and I think Nick thought he could become, but now he’s actually doing it and you can’t help but gain confidence from that.”

On his thoughts on Kobe Bryant …

“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.

Ashton Hagans

On the intercepting the lob pass at Texas Tech …

“Actually, I had turned around and saw it was a turnover and then, as I’m running back, I see that he lobbed it in the air. So, I felt like I had time to get it and I just felt like it was there, and I just tried to make the play that I could make.”

On what he has learned about how to prepare for a team Vanderbilt …

“They’re going to come in here, give us their best shot. 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.”

On whether he is feeling less pressure …

“I feel less pressure because of the confidence the coaches have in me, my teammates have in me and that I have in myself that I can go out there and make the plays I know I can make.”

On Kobe Bryant’s death …

“It was actually—we were in here with (head athletic trainer) Geoff (Staton), then I just looked down at my phone. 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.”

On learning from Bryant’s work ethic …

“Just stay working. Just do what I do. Don’t listen to the outside noise. Stay the course. Listen to my family, coaches, teammates, whatever they got to tell me and just work hard. Practice, compete, compete until the wheels fall off and just do that and you’ll go be at your best.”

On Vandy losing 24 straight SEC games …

“Just gotta go in there, have the same mindset like when we play anybody. We lost some tough games, but we know they’re going to come in and give us their best shot. We gotta give them our best shot.”

On whether there is risk of looking ahead to Auburn …

“Just take it game by game. Just try to get each win that we can get. But on Saturday it’s going to be a big one. Tough environment, but we’ve been in that environment. We’ve been (to) Arkansas, Texas Tech, but now we’re going into Auburn, a real physical team on Saturday, but we’ve gotta get this game tomorrow too.”

On whether he was worried about getting called for a foul when he went for the steal on the final play Saturday …

“No, not at all. It was a little bit of time left on the clock, so they’re going to let us play it out. Once he blew past me, I’m like, ‘Nick probably is going to get the block,’ but once I saw him bring it down to the side I was like, ‘Oh, I got it.’ So, I just tried to hit it. It happened and we just came out with the win.”

Nate Sestina

On what the team needs to be ready for on Wednesday …

“Anything can happen. 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.”

On whether Vanderbilt’s struggles play into the minds of UK players …

“It doesn’t really, at least for me. This is my fifth year doing it. Teams that have struggled in conference play can always come back and shock people. My freshman year, we lost to an eight seed in the conference tournament. So, like I said before, anything can happen and this team can come in and shock us if we aren’t ready to play. But I think everybody is really locked in and we’ve really bought in to what we’re trying to do here and we’ll be good.”

On how Nick Richards’ strong play has affected the frontcourt rotation … “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.).”

On if the team can use the loss to Evansville earlier this season as motivation, or if it’s too far back …

“That was November, right? So, it’s two months removed from me. Yesterday’s over, I don’t even think about it. For us, it’s more looking ahead than it is looking back. Obviously, you have to learn from mistakes and learn from games like that, but it’s more just focusing on who we’re playing now and not trying to live in the past. Just focusing on who we have tomorrow. And then once tomorrow’s over, focusing on who we have next.”

On the team playing so many close games …

“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.”

On if all of the close games can help when the postseason arrives …

“Yeah, I do. The NCAA Tournament is full of it. You might have a two seed versus a 15, and it shocks you because you’re not used to playing a school like that. Mid-major versus high major games all the time, it happens. For us, at the end of games, we’ve been in so many of them and it just comes down to, if we’re disciplined enough to finish those games when you’re up 10 with three minutes left, finishing the game then, it will help us out come March and April.”

On what he hopes to accomplish over the last 12 regular season games …

“Obviously, we want to continue to win, try to go 12-0. That’s big for us, win the regular season for the SEC and then go into the conference tournament on a huge win streak with a little bit of momentum moving forward. For me personally, I just want to soak it all in. I have 12 regular-season games in college basketball, then it comes to an end. I did the same thing last year. However many games I have left, I tried my best to soak it all in and just enjoy the experience and enjoy the ride. It’s a completely different beast here and I’m just trying to really enjoy the last couple of months that I have.”

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