Justus: UK’s performance ‘tremendous,’ ‘elite’ and an ‘all-time high’
Mega Bemax was supposed to be the most likely opponent to defeat Kentucky on its exhibition series in the Bahamas. Bolstering Mega Bemax’s supposed aura as the “Kentucky of Europe” was the fact it had three of its players chosen in three separate NBA drafts: 2014, 2016 and 2017.
That was a first for professional basketball in Serbia, even if only one of those nine players was a first-round pick.
Kentucky made sure that the only thing that stood out about Mega Bemax in Saturday’s game were its pink uniforms.
Mega Bemax takes pride in including a shade of pink it its team colors. Last season, its uniforms were “intensive pink and royal blue.” This coming season, the team plans to wear “shock pink and bright cyan.” (Cyan is greenish-blue.)
Kentucky made sure this opponent was not pretty in pink. If anything, UK’s 100-64 victory looked like a bull made angry by the waving of — in this case — a pink towel.
PJ Washington suggested that Kentucky’s intensity, even if this was a mere exhibition game, reached an unprecedented level, at least for his two years in Lexington.
When asked if the competitiveness exceeded what UK had last season, Washington said, “Yeah. It’s a lot different. You can tell with these guys, they’re a lot more dedicated than we were last year. They want it a lot more. We’ve been in the gym after games here. Everybody wants it more, and that’s what special teams do.”
Assistant coach Joel Justus, who spoke to reporters after the game, gushed about what transpired.
“Loved our effort,” he said. “Our energy was tremendous. It was an elite performance by our guys. ... Togetherness was at its all-time high. ... Obviously, we’re extremely happy.”
It didn’t take long for Kentucky to begin the battering. The Cats made their first six shots, took the lead for good less than four minutes into the game and seemingly never checked the rearview mirror.
Justus said the UK coaches had been prepping the players about the challenge Mega Bemax represented for some time.
“For a couple weeks,” he said. “I’m not going to lie.”
While Kentucky made 15 of 31 shots in zipping to a 47-29 halftime lead, the team from Serbia struggled mightily to put the ball in the basket. Mega Bemax made only three of its first 21 shots (14 percent), and had made only one of 13 three-point shots until Kostia Mushidi hit one in the final seconds to set the halftime score.
Kentucky had its defensive intensity dialed up from the start. The team from Serbia tried to answer in kind.
“It got chippy,” UK freshman Keldon Johnson said. “But we knew that from the jump it was going to be physical. We’re a physical team. We wanted to be the ones that threw the first punch. ... See how they reacted. If they don’t (respond), we just keep pushing it up.”
As in Wednesday’s game against the Bahamas Select Team, the combination of physical play and UK intensity led to a momentary temper flare. This time the referees had to separate the players after a Mega Bemax defender knocked a driving Immanuel Quickley to the floor late in the half. Order was quickly restored.
The many Kentucky fans in attendance enjoyed what they saw. This was perhaps never more evident than when Tyler Herro stepped to the line to shoot free throws with 6:19 left in the first half. A fan yelled, “He’s a super Herro!”
Kentucky’s propensity for highlight-reel material turned into an avalanche early in the second half. Reid Travis got it started by leaping high for an offensive rebound that led to a Quickley three-pointer. That was the appetizer.
Then Washington leaped high for a pass and slammed it home. That was the entrée.
Then Quade Green bypassed a fast-break layup for a lob that Johnson rose high to dunk.
When asked how high he jumped on the dunk, Johnson said, “I was pretty high. I don’t know if it’s because it’s our first games or adrenaline. It’s pretty crazy.”
As Mega Bemax called time, Johnson high-stepped to mid-court where Washington waited to collaborate on an elevated chest bump.
How high was this two-man leap? “Oh, super high,” Johnson said. “I can’t explain it. It’s a surreal feeling.”
The blowout did not cool the game’s competitiveness.
Less than four minutes into the second half, referee Brent Hampton told UK freshman Ashton Hagans and Mega Bemax’s Luka Asceric, “Both of you, stop!”
Three minutes later, double technical fouls were assessed to Asceric and Nick Richards.
Barely a minute later, a Mega Bemax player pleaded his objection to a non-call by saying, “He pushed me!!”
Justus embraced the consistent intensity despite a big lead.
“I think it says, that’s who we are,” he said. “You know, we’re a team that’s going to come in waves.”