KNOXVILLE — Kentucky’s seven-man rotation expanded after Johnny Juzang made a case for himself for more valuable playing time following a memorable performance against Tennessee Saturday afternoon.
Juzang scored a career-high 13 points to lead the 15th-ranked Wildcats to a 77-64 win over the Volunteers, giving Kentucky its first victory at Thompson-Boling Arena in four years and it mostly because of Juzang’s contributions off the bench.
“He’s got a great attitude,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He takes responsibility for how he’s playing. You are what your statistics say that you are … he just kept fighting. I was so proud of him. You’ve got to have a team full of guys ready to go and we had a couple of guys not playing well.”
Juzang made all four of his attempts from the field, including three shots from long range, also a career-high. Juzang’s lone rebound and putback on a Nick Richards missed free throw helped the Wildcats (18-2, 8-2, Southeastern Conference) fend off the Volunteers down the stretch.
The Wildcats were still clinging to a four-point lead when Richards got fouled with 7:59 left. Richards made the first of two free throws and missed the second, but Juzang got the offensive rebound and scored to make it 56-49.
“That’s a real skill,” Calipari said. “Just the effort, just the energy and that’s why we left him (in the game). The biggest rebound in the game was that rebound, which he grabbed in traffic. That’s what he always does and no one can get that ball except him and he grabbed it.”
Juzang’s effort was part of Kentucky’s 17-3 advantage off the bench. Immanuel Quickley led the Cats with 18 points, 15 in the second half, while Tyrese Maxey and Richards added 15 points apiece and Ashton Hagans scored 10 as Kentucky put five in double figures.
Freshman Keion Brooks collected nine rebounds and the other four points off the bench. Juzang’s play was crucial to help Kentucky hold off the Volunteers (13-10, 5-5).
Calipari said Juzang “owned” his performance against the Volunteers and the Kentucky coach now has more faith in his freshman guard than he did in the past.
“Johnny is not afraid to shoot balls,” Calipari said. “He’s not afraid … a demonstrated performance like today will help Johnny enormously.”
Juzang had scored just 23 points in Kentucky’s first nine Southeastern Conference games, but never wavered in his attempt to crack the lineup. Juzang earned more minutes after Kahlil Whitney left the program nearly two weeks ago, but didn’t make a breakthrough until Saturday.
“My teammates were looking for me,” Juzang said. “The shots were falling. Nothing really got me going. I try to bring energy to every game. My teammates were finding me and my shots were falling. It was a good night.”
More than 2,000 miles and three time zones away from home, Juzang stayed in the gym night and day in an effort to end a cycle of ineffective contributions. Even during non-peak times, Juzang kept aiming for his shot on the court and visualized performances similar to the one he displayed against Tennessee.
“If you have a clear vision and a goal in mind of what you want to do, you’re going to keep pushing,” Juzang said. “You’re not always going to feel great, motivated or positive — that’s just not realistic. You’re going to go through stretches where you are down and not motivated. You might lose a little bit of hope, you’ve got to keep going, no matter how you feel. You have to keep going, you have that goal in mind. You have to just keep pushing. I’m definitely not saying that it’s easy, but you just keep going.”
Although struggling, Juzang’s teammates kept waiting for a breakthrough, simply because of his work ethic behind the scenes.
““He stays ready and puts in the work every single day,” Maxey said. “He’s the first one in the gym and the last one leaving. I’m proud of him. I told him to stick with it, keep fighting and today we really needed him. … He came up big for us.”
Thanks to Juzang, Kentucky overcame Rocky Top. The victory snapped a four-game losing streak in Knoxville. The last win over the Volunteers on the road was in 2015.
“It was a good road win for our young guys,” Calipari said. “This is a hard environment. This is a tough place to play and Rick (Barnes’) teams are not going to give you the game. You have to take it. They’re not going to do stuff that costs them the game. You’re going to have to take the game in this building.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network
No. 15 Kentucky 77, Tennessee 64
KENTUCKY (18-5) – Montgomery 1-2 0-0 2, Richards 5-5 5-6 15, Hagans 2-8 6-6 10, Maxey 6-13 3-4 15, Quickley 5-9 6-7 18, Brooks 2-5 0-0 4, Juzang 4-4 2-2 13, Sestina 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-46 22-25 77.
TENNESSEE (13-10) – Fulkerson 3-10 10-12 16, Plavsic 1-3 0-0 2, Bowden 5-12 5-6 16, Vescovi 5-13 4-4 18, Pons 4-11 0-0 9, Johnson 1-5 0-0 3, Gaines 0-0 0-2 0, Nkamhoua 0-0 0-0 0, Pember 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-55 19-24 64.
Halftime_Kentucky 37-30. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 5-10 (Juzang 3-3, Quickley 2-3, Hagans 0-1, Maxey 0-3), Tennessee 7-26 (Vescovi 4-11, Bowden 1-4, Johnson 1-5, Pons 1-5, Pember 0-1). Rebounds_Kentucky 30 (Brooks 9), Tennessee 25 (Bowden 9). Assists_Kentucky 10 (Maxey 4), Tennessee 12 (Pons, Johnson 3). Total Fouls_Kentucky 21, Tennessee 20. A_21,232 (21,678).