When Kentucky head coach John Calipari was asked about Johnny Juzang’s 13-point performance in his team’s 77-64 victory over Tennessee, their first in Knoxville since 2015, Calipari openly admitted to reporters that although he may not be fully sold on him just yet, “he’s building my confidence in him.”
Kentucky shot just 1-of-10 from 3-point range in their 80-72 victory over Mississippi State, which made Juzang hitting three of Kentucky’s five triples on Saturday against the Vols all the more important, along with registering one of the biggest rebounds and putbacks of the season down the stretch of the game.
Along with Juzang’s breakout showing to help Kentucky win their 10th game in the last 12, the ‘Cats got double-figure scoring from Immanuel Quickley, who led everyone with 18 points, Nick Richards and Tyrese Maxey both scoring 15 points, while Ashton Hagans battled through the struggles all game to chip in 10 more points.
But, it was the gritty play of two freshmen, Keion Brooks Jr. (four points, team-high nine rebounds) and Juzang, that helped Kentucky get over the hump in another road test with the season continuing to wind down.
Calipari says the team was "ecstatic" in the locker room for Juzang and Brooks, who combined for 17 points and 10 rebounds.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_ATH) February 8, 2020
"If Johnny does what he does, we got a nice little rotation."
All four of Juzang’s makes came at relatively key moments in the game
Johnny Juzang scoring 13 points is a win for Kentucky no matter who and where they’re playing, but all four of Juzang’s field goals came at points in the contest when Kentucky could’ve used a bucket at that point.
- First make: a trailing 3 in transition off a find from Tyrese Maxey to push Kentucky’s lead out to double digits for the first time with just outside of six minutes to play in the first half. Calipari wants Maxey to distribute more in the offense and having a shooter like Juzang will help in accomplishing that before March is here.
Juzang’s first make, a trailing transition triple from the right wing off a Maxey dish, pushed Kentucky’s lead to double digits for the first time in the game.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 9, 2020
I love this shot because these shots are how Willis, Hawkins and Wiltjer played their way into key rotation minutes. pic.twitter.com/Xla2PHrklj
- Second make: Maxey found Juzang in the right corner off a baseline drive to push Kentucky’s lead back out to nine inside of the final 20 seconds of the first half. This was one of the many examples Juzang, Quickley and others for Kentucky provided in keeping Tennessee’s runs at bay throughout the game. They made a shot, Kentucky would answer quickly (no pun intended).
Juzang’s second make temporarily pushed the lead to nine inside of the final 20 seconds of the half before UT picked up two freebies on the other end, but a big make nonetheless. pic.twitter.com/h2xNTW4hpp— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 9, 2020
- Third make: Tennessee had just gotten the Kentucky lead back down to five inside of the first two minutes of the second half, but Juzang cashed home his third triple in three attempts off a beautiful find from EJ Montgomery from the opposite side of the floor to push the lead back out to a more comfortable eight-point margin.
Juzang’s third make of the game was probably my favorite because of EJ Montgomery fumbling the ball, getting it back and delivering a perfect pass into JJ’s shooting pocket for the 3. pic.twitter.com/qxO05e88sM— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 9, 2020
- Fourth and final make: In my opinion, Juzang’s offensive rebound from the opposite side of the key and layup with 7:59 to play not only pushed Kentucky’s lead back out to seven, it was a perfect example of how Tennessee kept pushing back down the stretch, but Kentucky was just better in the end. (Plus, it’s the type of play where Calipari will keep you on the floor playing more minutes.)
Johnny Juzang comes across the lane to rebound the missed free throw and puts it in. pic.twitter.com/TXli8fAbyL— Not Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton2) February 8, 2020
Calipari really helped sum up Juzang’s big day at the office with his post-game presser thoughts.
You can tell Calipari’s still a tad hesitant about Juzang, but that the confidence to make him the eighth man in the rotation is growing. pic.twitter.com/VvH3IthO6H— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 9, 2020
Kentucky had a big week in conference play with two wins against a hot team in Mississippi State at home and won a game in building they hadn’t won in since Calipari was running hockey line changes on the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns and the Harrison twins on the roster.
The crucial thing for Kentucky is that in those two wins, they got two crucial performances from two players — Juzang on Saturday and EJ Montgomery on Tuesday — you’d least expect to put out that type of production.
If Kentucky can get the confidence to rise with players like Juzang and Montgomery down the homestretch of the season, that makes them all the more dangerous come tournament time.
(Plus, the win and Auburn’s nonsensical victory over LSU at home in overtime means that both bunches of Tigers and Kentucky each have two losses in conference play now with eight games to play.)