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ESPN reporter: Cats can ‘keep getting better’



 

 

She’s a former three-sport collegiate athlete who admits she was as “shocked and surprised” as anyone when No. 1 Duke came from 23 points behind last week to win at Louisville.

Brooke Weisbrod was working that game for ESPN as a sideline reporter and said it was “magical” watching what happened.

“It was so surprising at first that Louisville came out and built such a big lead. It was like, ‘Are they really up 23?’ Then it was like Duke had enough and Zion (Williamson) went into beast mode. The entire arena got silent and was absolutely shocked by what Duke was doing,” said Weisbrod. “The Louisville player, fans, staff were all just speechless. It was one of those moments that was just hard to believe.”

She got to watch “bits” of the Kentucky-LSU game before Duke- Louisville started. She expected Kentucky to win.

“With the way Kentucky had been playing, losing at home did surprise me,” she said. “But LSU did a great job. However, when you get on a roll, everybody wants to punch you in the mouth and that’s what happened to Kentucky. It has been that kind of season for a lot of teams.”

ESPN sideline reporter Brooke Weisbrod thinks Duke is a special team but also thinks Kentucky is going to continue to get better before NCAA play starts. (ESPN Photo)

ESPN sideline reporter Brooke Weisbrod thinks Duke is a special team but also thinks Kentucky is going to continue to get better before NCAA play starts. (ESPN Photo)

But does what happened with the Duke-Louisville game show the nation that Duke is beatable come NCAA Tournament time or unbeatable if it can come from 23 down on the road with nine minutes to play and win?

“That’s a great question and it may actually show both,” Weisbrod said. “More than anything, to me it shows the level of competitive fire this Duke team has. I think the players are truly tied together. It’s not what people like to talk about, but Duke’s chemistry is off the charts. Those players like each other and are together. If they lose, it wouldn’t be shocking because plenty of teams have played them close and they have lost. But it’s going to take a special night to beat them.”

What about Kentucky?

“I still think in March that Kentucky is going to be a tough team for anybody to beat,” Weisbrod said before Kentucky easily beat then No. 1 Tennessee. “Just look at where they have come from game one (a 34-point loss to Duke) to now. And I think Kentucky can keep getting better.”

Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson tries to recruit “smart” catchers that have a high GPA as well as SEC level talent. (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson tries to recruit “smart” catchers that have a high GPA as well as SEC level talent. (UK Athletics Photo)

Weisbrod joined ESPN in 2003 as an analyst and works both men’s and women’s college basketball games. She has been a studio analyst for ESPNU and has also covered college football, lacrosse, softball, WNBA and national high school events like the McDonald’s All-American Games.

“I like that it is not rare anymore to see women working on men’s games,” Weisbrod said.

She’s also watched the Kentucky women play this season and believes freshman Rhyne Howard, who leads UK in scoring, is a future star.

“Or she might already be a star with the way she’s playing,” Weisbrod said.

She has not been surprised by UK’s resurgence after failing to make the NCAA Tournament field last year.

“I am used to thinking of Matthew Mitchell’s teams as Elite Eight teams,” she said. “If they can just get healthy and stay healthy, they could compete and make a decent run in the NCAA this year.”

Weisbrod played basketball — along with tennis and softball — at Coastal Carolina where she was the Big South Player of the Year in basketball her senior year as well as the Big South Scholar-Athlete of the Year. She had over 1,000 points along with over 300 rebounds and 200 assists in her career.

She has a deep appreciation for the way Kentucky senior Maci Morris plays.

“Maci knows how to move and use her speed and agility,” Weisbrod said. “(NBA star) James Harden is not the quickest or most athletic player but he understands how to move and is a great shooter. Maci is a much more willing passer than him, but she gets the game and gets angles just like he does. I appreciate players who just do not jump over you or push you out of the way to score. She uses her ability and angles to get by you. I admire players like that and understand why Kentucky fans love her.”

Weisbrod, an Ohio native, obviously plays that young athletes should try all the sports they can. She had two older sisters who were both “good athletes” as well as aunts who also were skilled athletes.

“In my family, sports is just what we did,” Weisbrod said. “We grew up in a big backyard with nothing around us, so we played games. I played football the neighborhood guys and girls. I played Nerf basketball in the room I shared with my sisters. I was somebody that needed to stay very active and that’s why my mom drove me from one practice to the next.

“I just need to be active, and I am still that way. Sports was also the place where I went to when I went through some hard times in high school and college to help clear my mind and talk to myself and God to help me just let things be. I’ll never regret playing all the sports I did and now I am just lucky to have a job that is the closest thing there is to still playing the game I loved so much.”

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What has the SEC Network meant for the conference? According to coach John Calipari, it has “changed everything” for the league.

“Not just in men’s basketball — in every sport. For the non-rev sports, it created revenue that they needed to compete on the national stage,” Calipari said about the SEC Network. “For men and women’s basketball, alright, it gave us what we need to compete with the best and not just Kentucky or Tennessee or Florida. Everybody.

“Then the thing that it did is (provide) the ability to go get coaches who go get the players to make this league – like right now, I think we’ve got eight teams in the top 40 (NET rankings). Again, we’ve had some teams that have had players hurt and they’re still competing.”

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During her softball coaching career at Kentucky, Rachel Lawson has always seemed to have an outstanding catcher — and does again this year in senior Jenny Schaper, who has started 158 games the previous three seasons. Lawson says it is no coincidence that she’s been blessed to have quality catchers.

“First, I recruit smart catchers. Number one, I look at, this sounds shocking — but they not only have to be talented, but they also have to have a high GPA,” the Kentucky coach said. “I look at the intangibles.”

That includes some characteristics

I am not sure I have heard many Division I coaches ever mention.

“I look at their parents. I see how they speak with their parents. They have to come in smart and mature and then because of that, all that you have to teach them when they come in is the skillset. If they already have the mentality, then they can do that,” Lawson said.

“We put such a high premium on defense. Always. And that’s one of the reasons our offense wasn’t always as strong, early on when we didn’t have the fan base . . . we put such a premium on intelligence. Now we are getting smart players that are incredibly talented and from that standpoint, I think that catching is the cornerstone of our program.

“No matter what they do offensively, that player can handle behind the dish, and fortunately for us, all of our catchers have been good offensive players, so it really just starts with how smart they are.”

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Kentucky basketball fans are in for their annual treat Saturday at halftime of the home game against Auburn when the Firecrackers, a performance jump rope team of talented fourth to eighth graders from Kings School District in Ohio, will perform.

The team performed at the Army-Navy basketball game in Annapolis, Md., last weekend and has already been at Belmont, Louisville, Indiana, Xavier, Penn State, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky this year.

“We’ve added some new tricks and we are always trying to speed things up,” said Julie Lewis, who has a daughter on the team and also helps coach Lynn Kelley at practice. “They work hard every day and always want to make the show better for those who have seen it before.”

Kentucky fans seldom leave their seats at halftime when the Firecrackers are performing at Rupp Arena. The Firecrackers notice and that’s one reason UK is one of their favorite shows each year.

“They look forward to coming to Kentucky every year,” Lewis said. “It’s their favorite place to perform. The eighth-grade girls always tear up when this show is over because they know they won’t perform again in Rupp Arena.”

The Firecrackers made their SEC Tournament debut in St. Louis last year. They will be back at the SEC tourney in Nashville in March for a performance during the semifinals.

“The SEC was a great time. Kentucky fans were great at the FanFest,” Lewis said.

The Firecrackers have 22 performers, including one boy. Only three are newcomers who will be making their Rupp Arena debut and Lewis says they are all excited because of what the older girls have told them.

Lewis said the “rump jump” that UK fans like so much will again be part of the show.

“We’ve added a twist where two girls sit beside each other and do it at the same time,” Lewis said. “We also have some new gymnastics tricks I think fans will like.”

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Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne understands why Calipari is often polarizing in the eyes of many national media members.

“I think he brings a fire to it that is unique. I think kids all over the country should look, especially basketball — and I’m really talking basketball families and players — all over the country should look at what we are doing here and how we’re doing it,” Payne said.

“We’re not sugarcoating it, we’re not lying to families, and there’s a success that happens here. And especially when things are rocky, people jump on and off the bandwagon.

“Well, that makes him a little more in tune to what is going on. He’s just a unique coach. I say this all the time, there’s not many coaches that can do what he is doing, if any, in this program.”

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From the first time I met Anthony Davis when he was a junior in high school, I’ve always admired the way he handles himself on and off the court and hate that his image has been tarnished recently after he asked the Pelicans to trade him.

However, it didn’t surprise me when a man told Davis at the 2018 NBA All- Star Game his son happened to be in an elevator with the NBA star and Davis, the 2012 Final Four MVP, gave him an autograph. That’s just the way Davis has always been based on everything I know about him.

“I just go out there and inspire them,” Davis said when that story was told to him. “Obviously, they (kids) look up to us as players. For me, any kid that comes to me and wants a picture or an autograph, if I don’t have anywhere to be or I’m not in a rush, I try to do it for them.

“You never know, the kid might not see you again. They might be here just for you. So I try to make these kids have the best experience of their life.”

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Quote of the Week: “Obviously they kicked our butts. It is just what it is. We weren’t as physical. They outphysicaled us and nothing we can do about it now. It was tough just getting my butt kicked. I didn’t play good defensively. They did a great job. They played harder than they have all year. They wanted to win more and they won,” Tennessee senior Admiral Schofield after the then No. 1 Vols lost 86-69 to UK.

Quote of the Week 2: “The kids here have lifetime scholarships and they can come back when they choose to. They can come back when the time’s right, and some of them are chipping away already and it’s great to see that John will do the same. He’s going to be out a little while,” John Calipari on John Wall coming back to UK to finish his degree due to injuries that will keep him out of the NBA for almost two years.

Quote of the Week 3: “When I was younger, my dad made a big deal about that. Shake someone’s hand firmly, make eye contact, (it) just shows a sign of respect. That’s just something I’ve stuck to. I try to stand out, show people respect,” UK senior Reid Travis on why he always makes eye contact with anyone he talks to.

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