JACKSONVILLE (KT) — Ashton Hagans remembers watching Kentucky play in the NCAA Tournament, especially the Wildcats’ loss to North Carolina two years ago in the South Region finals in Memphis.
He also watched last year’s setback to Kansas State in the Sweet Sixteen but is ready to make his own mark in the prestigious event.
“It's a dream come true, just growing up watching this on TV and now getting the chance to play in this tournament, it's a big confidence thing, and we're just ready to come in and play,” Hagans said Wednesday. “(We just need to) play to our training, be as one, stick together as we do on the court, and just go off our training.”
Kentucky freshman guard Tyler Herro agreed and added the Wildcats are eager to step on the big stage against Abilene Christian Thursday night to open the NCAA Tournament.
“We're just happy to be here,” he said. “As a team, I think we're ready to go and just ready to attack this tournament.”
Kentucky freshman EJ Montgomery played his high school basketball in Fort Pierce and also welcomes the opportunity to play in front of family and friends in his home state.
“It’s good to come home and play in front of family and friends,” he said. “We are all coming together now and doing everything we can to prepare for the game (Thursday). We need to focus a little more and regroup. This is definitely exciting. My first time in the NCAA Tournament and I’ll have my family watching me … excited for March Madness.
Kentucky senior Reid Travis also is anxious for his final tour of duty as a Wildcat.
“It just recently hit me,” he said. “The season experience was nice and playing basketball for four years. I’ve heard it all and seen it all. I’m trying to soak it all up.”
Travis admitted he “feels like a freshman again.”
“It’s cool to be part of (the NCAA Tournament),” he said. “We will take it one game at a time. We play a lot of big games, That’s the thing about being at Kentucky. We will take each game like any other (game).”
Since its Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal loss to Florida last Friday, LSU has spent the brief break regrouping for a possible run in the South Region.
The Tigers (26-6) won the SEC regular-season title but dropped a 76-73 loss to Florida to open the postseason. LSU is a No. 3 seed in the South Region and will open the NCAA Tournament at 12:40 p.m. Thursday against Yale at VyStar Veterans Memorial Stadium. The top seed in the region is Duke.
The loss to the Gators hasn’t changed LSU’s mission. The Tigers have been without head coach Will Wade, who was suspended indefinitely earlier this month.
“All season we've been saying, we are a family, we are going to grow together — keep pushing through everything, all that adversity that's been thrown at us,” he said. “But nothing has changed since the Florida game. It was a game that we lost. We didn't execute down the stretch, and we know that we have to come together as a family even more now because we don't have our head coach.”
Interim coach Tony Benford agreed and said the team’s focus is on Yale.
“We can't control what happened yesterday,” he said. “But we're mindful of the fact that there's a lot of noise out there. You know that, but what we try to do is focus in on Yale right now. That's what we've done, preparing for Yale, and we've talked about that.”
Abilene Christian senior guard Jaylen Franklin embraces the opportunity to play Kentucky in the team’s first appearance in the Big Dance.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “This was always a dream come true. We've preached about this for our senior year over the summers, so like we want to go to the NCAA Tournament, we want to go play at the biggest stage. We're here now, and we've just got to make some noise.”
Franklin played at Parkview High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Former NBA standout Derek Fisher also played at Parkview. Franklin once envisioned playing for the Wildcats.
“Kentucky is a great team, great program, great players and great coaching staff. I used to grow up watching them and just being out there -- not being out there, but just watching them and dreaming about going to Kentucky,” he said. “This is truly a dream come true. I'm just going to embrace this moment.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.