Juzang’s Moment Comes at Tennessee
Fouls were being called on left and right. In fact, Tennessee’s John Fulkerson drew 10 Kentucky fouls by himself in the first half.
That put nearly the entire Kentucky team in foul trouble, with six of UK’s eight scholarship players picking up two fouls before halftime.
The only player who avoided a foul prior to the break? Johnny Juzang. He responded accordingly.
“He stays ready, puts in the work every single day, first one in the gym, last one leaving,” Tyrese Maxey said. “Coach told him to stick with it, keep fighting and today we really needed him.”
Juzang had the best game of his short Wildcat career on Saturday. The freshman guard came up huge with 13 points – surpassing his career high with eight points in the first half alone – as No. 15/16 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) won on the road for the third Saturday in the last four over Tennessee (13-10, 5-5 SEC), 77-64. The victory was UK’s first in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 2015.
“This is a hard environment, this is a tough place to play and Rick’s (Barnes) teams are not going to give you the game,” John Calipari said. “You gotta take it. They just won’t. They’re not going to do stuff to cost them a game. You’re going to have to take the game in this building.”
Playing a central role in taking it was Juzang, who didn’t miss a shot during his breakout performance – going 4 of 4 from the field, 3 of 3 from deep and 2 of 2 at the foul line. Well known as a shooter out of high school, Juzang had struggled to find consistency with his outside shot prior to Saturday, making 5 of 25 from 3. Never did that cause his confidence to waver.
“My teammates were looking for me and shots were falling,” Juzang said. “Nothing really got me going. I try to bring energy every game. My teammates were finding me and shots were falling, so it was a good night.”
Juzang’s three 3s were big, but they weren’t what caught Calipari’s attention most. With the Volunteers steadfastly refusing to go away and having cut UK’s lead to five with eight minutes left, Juzang rebounded a missed free throw by Nick Richards and put it back.
“He’s building my confidence in him,” Calipari said. “… You gotta own your performance if you want to change. You have to come every day and know there’s no easy way to what I’m trying to do. And you have to understand that every game I play is someone’s Super Bowl and their team is playing.”
Juzang is coming to understand that fact, but the process has not been easy. He has played double-digit minutes in less than half UK’s games this season, which has brought plenty of difficult moments. The key for the Los Angeles native has been to not let those moment deter him.
“If you have a clear vision and goal in mind of what you want to do, you’re going keep pushing,” Juzang said. “Not always are you going to feel great or motivated or positive. That’s just not realistic. You’re going to go through stretches where you’re down and not motivated and you might lose a little bit of home, but you gotta keep going. No matter how you feel, you keep going and you have that goal in mind. You just keep pushing. I’m definitely not saying that it’s easy, but you keep going.”
That all makes a moment like Saturday rewarding for Juzang and joy-filled for his teammates. Calipari found Juzang in the closing seconds of his breakout performance, giving a high five and saying he was proud of him.
“He’s got a great attitude,” Calipari said. “He takes responsibility for how he’s playing. You are what your stats say you are. ‘If I played more, if I shoot more, if I…” no. You are what your stats say you are. And he just kept fighting and I was so proud of him.”
Maxey echoed that sentiment on the podium at the postgame press conference.
“He’s the first one in the gym,” Maxey said. “Probably going to be in the gym tomorrow morning, maybe in the gym tonight knowing Johnny. I’m just proud of him. He stuck with it. He could have let go of the rope early in the year when he wasn’t making shots, but he stuck with it, kept playing defense, kept fighting and today he came up big for us.”
With the most important basketball of the season left over the next month of the regular season and tournament play to follow, Juzang plans to build on this performance. No one wants that to happen more than his coach. At this time of year, a mentality like Juzang’s is a valuable thing.
“He is not afraid,” Calipari said. “Now, he’s gotta get in tune with his teammates, because he’s not afraid.”