Kentucky began the bounce-back process on Friday night.
On the heels of back-to-back overtime defeats, the Wildcats took care of business in a 3-0 win over Mississippi State. Their mission for the weekend, however, was far from complete.
On Sunday, UK finished the job with a 2-1 win against Auburn.
"Pepperdine and Arkansas really stung," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "We needed to find a way to not only win two games, but win a game like this. This is exactly the kind of game that we've been letting get away from us. To play a great team like Auburn and such a well-coached team and to find a way says that there's something in us that we want to find a way to respond."
The game, as Lipsitz said, was hard-fought from start to finish, but UK came out on top. In doing so, the Cats (7-3-0, 2-1-0 Southeastern Conference) swept a crucial conference home weekend.
"We had to," Lipsitz said. "Sometimes your back is up against the wall and you have to find out who you are. When you fall, the question is, are you going to continue to fall or are you getting up?"
UK claimed a first-half lead when Jade Klump scored her fifth goal off a rebound from a shot by Arin Gilliland. It was the second goal the Cats scored off a loose ball in the box this weekend.
"It's not an accident," Lipsitz said. "We do a lot of drills that work on that."
But less than three minutes later, the Tigers (6-4-1, 0-2-1 SEC) responded with a game-tying goal. For the next 36 minutes the two teams would battle to a standstill before Zoe Swift headed in a Cara Ledman corner kick that Alex Carter served back in front of the net.
"I was wide open," Swift said. "I was like, 'If I miss, Jon's going to yell at me.' No, I'm just kidding. I saw I had to put it in the goal, do the details that we talk about in practice."
Open as she may have been, Swift delivered on a week of hard work with the game-winning goal.
"Zoe's been in a little bit of a lull right now and she's very hard on herself," Lipsitz said. "So we've been building her up and saying, 'Look, we know you can do this,' but it comes from work, it comes from doing the basics and she's really had an amazing week of training. I'm not surprised at all that she got one."
UK wasn't surprised to win either, but the Tigers - a "great team," according to Lipsitz - didn't make it easy. In the tougher moments, the Cats remembered they were playing for something bigger on Sunday.
"We just knew that Auburn was a great team and we've been training hard all week," Klump said. "We really enjoyed battling against them, but this was a Kick Cancer Match so we really wanted to come out and battle like those who have battled with cancer."
As part of the annual Kick Cancer Match, UK wore special Nike Volt jerseys that will be auctioned off to benefit the Dance Blue Clinic at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. The team also honored cancer sufferers by placing yellow roses on the goal line after the game.
The postgame ceremony was the second of the night, as UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Honda's manager of corporate community relations Erik Wedin were in attendance to present Arin Gilliland with the Honda Inspiration Award.
Entering the weekend, Lipsitz didn't hide from the importance of games against Mississippi State and Auburn to his team. What happened after the game served as a reminder that there are more important things still.
"Win or lose, that is secondary," Lipsitz said. "The game is secondary."
Mark Stoops celebrates his first SEC win with Stanley "Boom" Williams. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown had just watched the same game.
The perspectives of the Kentucky head coach and offensive coordinator couldn't have been more different.
"That was a thing of beauty," Stoops said. "For a defensive guy, it was."
"Obviously not a thing of beauty on offense, without question," Brown said.
UK had just toppled Vanderbilt, 17-7. The victory came in spite of a sputtering second half by the Wildcat offense and primarily because of a defense that dominated the Commodores (1-4, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) from start to finish. It's understandable, then, that Stoops and Brown saw the game so differently.
What they shared was joy in their first SEC win together and the first for Kentucky (3-1, 1-1 SEC) since 2011.
"It's great to get a victory," Stoops said. "It was nice to see our team fight through adversity. It wasn't easy. We had to dig in. We knew it wasn't going to be easy to come away with a victory."
"The positive thing is we did overcome it and win the game," Brown said. "And we're going to enjoy it. It's hard to win an SEC game. ... We're going to be excited about it and then we're going to get this stuff fixed and worry about getting better tomorrow."
The UK defense will try to improve starting on Sunday as well, but the Cats will be hard pressed to outdo their performance on Saturday.
UK didn't allow a single point to the Commodore offense and limited Vanderbilt to eight first downs and 139 total yards, the fewest the Cats have allowed in an SEC game since 1996. The Cats applied constant pressure on Wade Freebeck, sacking the true freshman quarterback four times and hitting him many more.
"Our guys have right now have an attitude and a mentality and a confidence about them, and that goes a long ways," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "These guys are playing very hard and playing together and they really showed it today and I'm very proud of them."
Entering the season and led by seniors Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, the UK defenders styled themselves the "Bad Boys." Stoops won't ever lead a charge to print t-shirts bearing the nickname, but he also can't argue with the results after the Cats didn't allow a touchdown on defense for the fourth straight game.
"I like the way they're playing," Stoops said. "I like their attitude, and they mean well, and I've said it, they've got a good heart and they played with a good mind today. You play with a good mind and a good heart, you got a good chance to play good defense."
If you ask Dupree - who tallied 1.5 sacks in the win - that new mentality has more to do with Stoops and his staff than the Bad Boys moniker. Dupree played on a 2011 defense led Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy that had some special moments - including in that last SEC win over Tennessee - but this 2014 group is at another level because of its belief and balance.
"The difference I see between us and my freshman year is the will to make plays," Dupree said. "Everyone's playing together. It's not just me making plays; it's not Z making plays."
That belief carried the Cats even though the second half brought plenty of moments that made the 59,940 fans in Commonwealth Stadium groan.
UK raced out to a 7-0 lead after a defensive hold and a clinical 99-yard touchdown drive capped by a 20-yard scoring strike from Patrick Towles to Ryan Timmons. Towles completed 9-of-9 passes on the drive and his next two as well, but then made his biggest mistake of the season so far in the shadow of his own goalposts. Looking left, Towles made the wrong read and threw in the flat. Darrius Sims jumped the route and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.
Towles would bounce back, eventually leading a scoring drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak in the closing seconds of the first half to stake UK to a 17-7 lead. But in the second half, Towles held the ball too long too often and fumbled twice in addition to another in the first half.
"It's just a combination of sweat and just gripping the ball too tight," Towles said. "I tend to try to fit balls in windows and grip the ball too tight and it just slips out of my hands. That's on me. That shouldn't happen. It's inexcusable and it won't happen again."
Those miscues and a Demarco Robinson muffed punt put the defense in perilous positions, as Vanderbilt began three fourth-quarter drives in UK territory. The Wildcat defense, however, was undeterred. Relying on blitzes and interceptions by A.J. Stamps, Marcus McWilson and Ashely Lowery, UK rarely bent and never broke.
"We were able to finish plays, which we've been harping on all offseason, and take advantage of opportunities to get turnovers," Eliot said. "I was very excited about their play this afternoon."
The Cats were opportunistic in moments when they wilted during that conference losing streak. Once again, Dupree credits the UK staff.
"I think it's a different mindset Coach Stoops has just brought to the team," Dupree said. "The last couple years, people gave up in certain situations. When adversity hit, we went the other way. But now we run to the war."
For all UK's defensive dominance, the 10-point margin remained unchanged throughout the second half. The Cats couldn't deliver the knockout blow until the game's final drive, which started with a 10-yard run by Braylon Heard to bring his game-high total to 62. From there, Brown went to the Wildcat formation for eight straight plays.
Jojo Kemp played sparingly before then, but carried seven times in eight plays - handing to Timmons on the other for no gain - and gained all 60 of his rushing yards to run out the clock.
"The worst thing we could have done once it was very clear that we were struggling and that Patrick was struggling was to lose the game, is to really do something, turn the ball over - which we tried, alright - but really to lose the game and try to force-feed something that we weren't doing very well," Brown said.
Facing No. 13 South Carolina next Saturday the Cats will surely need more out of their offense and Towles specifically, but 17 points were enough to trigger a raucous celebration following the win over Vanderbilt. Towles described the volume of the locker-room scene as a "12" on a 1-10 scale. It likely hit a fever pitch when Stoops broke out his dancing shoes for his team for the first time.
Dupree called his coach a "horrible" dancer, but Stoops fortunately has other things going for him.
"He usually jumps up and down (after wins), but this time he tried to do a little dance move," Dupree said. "He's a great coach though."
When the Kentucky took the field Friday night, the Wildcats weren't thinking about the heartbreak they felt last week in back-to-back overtime losses to Pepperdine and Arkansas.
All that mattered now was bouncing back and taking care of business. The Cats were intently focused on the one thing head coach Jon Lipsitz preached to his team all week in practice.
"We've just sort of gone back to the basics, talking about details," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz's team took the message to heart, evidenced by a 3-0 victory over conference foe Mississippi State at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. For Kentucky senior Arin Gilliland, straying away from the basics was exactly what caused the Wildcats to go winless in their previous two matches in spite of mostly solid play in both..
"We're keeping people hanging in the game, we're not doing the details, we're not getting there pressing the ball, and we're not finishing goals that we should be finishing," Gilliland said. "Those are details--those are little things. Today, we came out, we did the basics. To play soccer, you have to do the basics first, and soccer will come. We did that today. (Lipsitz) was right, once again."
Once Gilliland and her teammates implemented Lipsitz's game plan, results quickly followed. Gilliland, a Lexington native, scored her fifth goal of the season off of a perfectly placed cross by Cara Ledman at the match's 52-minute mark.
"It was a great cross by Cara Ledman," Gilliland said. "Every time she crosses the ball, I know exactly where it's going. So, I got to position myself perfectly. That finishing is what we did all week. I did the basics. I stayed over the ball, finished through the goal, and results happened."
After controlling possession for the majority of Friday's game, Kentucky was able to stay composed on the way to its sixth win of the season. Wildcat junior Courtney Raetzman, who scored two of UK's three goals, echoed Lipsitz's back-to-basics mantra.
"What we really focus on is details and doing little things that a lot of other teams don't focus on as much," Raetzman said. "Going back to the basics, we need to keep that simple, and not try to do all these fancy things--like trying to get that game-winning pass or that amazing shot off. More like, we need to play and do the basics. From that, great things will happen."
The Wildcats (6-3-0, 1-1-0 SEC) hope to carry their momentum into Sunday's annual Kick Cancer Match with the Tigers of Auburn University.
"(Auburn is) a great team--very dynamic, very exciting, and very athletic," Lipsitz said. "They're young... and doing great. I'm not surprised that Coach (Karen) Hoppa has them playing well. It'll be a fantastic game, a great challenge and a great event. Obviously, it's a fundraiser for us (to raise money) for pediatric cancer research. We need all of Big Blue Nation here--number one, for a great cause, and as a secondary reason, to root us on."