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Conwright playing a versatile role as UK gets set to host No. 12 Notre Dame

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UK_Morehead_41.JPGAs if No. 12 Notre Dame in the third game of the season with six freshmen on the roster wasn't enough, the Kentucky women's basketball team has found an early season hurdle in the form of the injury bug.

In No. 9/10 Kentucky's first game of the season, sharpshooter Keyla Snowden went down with a nasty right knee sprain. Snowden practiced Thursday and was expected to again Friday, but she's a game-time decision for Sunday.

Then, freshman forward Samantha Drake, a surprise starter and significant contributor to begin the year, sprained her left knee against Miami (Ohio) and is questionable for the Notre Dame game. She was not expected to practice Friday.

Pair those injuries with the already indefinite absence of point guard Amber Smith and suddenly a once deep UK team is shrinking thinner by the day as it prepares for a huge showdown with a high-scoring Fighting Irish team Sunday at 1 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.

No worries, though, Wildcat fans: Head coach Matthew Mitchell has found a quick cure in freshman do-it-all Maegan Conwright.

The 5-foot-8 freshman guard out of Arlington, Texas, has played a significant role in her first two collegiate games, serving as a one-man band-aid for Mitchell's injury-plagued team. Though she came in as the least heralded of UK's five-player mega recruiting class, she's made the largest contribution so far.

Conwright, a Texas high school state champion, scored eight points and pulled down four rebounds in her debut against Morehead State before recording 15 points, five steals, four assists and three rebounds in a big 31 minutes in a win over Miami (Ohio).

"I struggle a little bit remembering all the plays and where I'm supposed to go in every position, but Coach Mitchell helps me a lot," Conwright said. "I'm willing to do whatever, play wherever to help the team."

Conwright came to Kentucky as a defensive stalwart and earned playing time over her highly regarded teammates because of it, but it's largely been her versatility and ability to play multiple positions that's helped her get on the court.

She played all five positions in high school, and at UK she has seen time at every position besides center.

"She has been very valuable," Mitchell said. "You have the possibility of going into this game against a highly ranked opponent possibly missing two starters and you still feel like you have a chance. That is a credit to our players and how hard they have worked and how hard they have prepared. I don't know how things will turn out on Sunday, but I know that the kids are going to go in there and fight hard, and Maegan is a great example of that.

"Maegan is a great example because she really doesn't know what she is doing at any of the positions, so you can just put her at any of the positions and it doesn't really matter," Mitchell joked. "She is going to play hard and maybe get some steals and maybe get a few rebounds, and I know she is going to go to the bucket."

Conwright represents a growing trend and change in Mitchell's recruiting philosophy to target versatile, interchangeable players that can play multiple positions.

Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap and SEC Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies are probably the best examples of the flexibility Mitchell has with his roster, but just about every player has the ability to play multiple positions.

"I had a very traditional view on recruiting when I got here four years ago," Mitchell said. "I wanted to sign a great five, I wanted to sign a great four, and I got the list out and all those things. That's the approach that we were taking. For whatever reason, we were lacking passion in some different places, and so my idea on who we wanted here started to evolve into, 'Hey, this a great place to come play basketball. This is a great school, great university.' I just want people that want to come to Kentucky and then we'll figure the rest out and we'll figure out what position you play and what we're going to do."

Conwright fits that description perfectly.

"It's really exciting playing UK basketball," Conwright said. "I love the defense and I love the tempo."

As a result, UK has created a fast-paced, defensive-minded style out of having those types of players. Now, Mitchell and his coaching staff are looking at those athletic, "tweener"-type players that can play multiple positions.

It's been extremely beneficial for the Cats through the first couple of games.

With Smith out for the foreseeable future and with questions lingering around the point guard position, Conwright went to assistant coach Matt Insell and inserted her name into the discussion with junior Crystal Riley and highly regarded freshman Jennifer O'Neill.

"I knew that I could guard the point because I'm good at on-the-ball defense, so that was my main focus at first," Conwright said. "I played point in high school, so if (Mitchell) needed me I was there. I let him know that if he needed somebody else, if Crystal got tired or Jen got tired, I could be there to hold a spot for a minute until they got their rest."

What role Conwright will play in UK's biggest challenge of the year Sunday remains to be seen.

Playing in what is expected to be one of the team's biggest crowds of the year against a nationally ranked opponent that is averaging 91.0 points per game will provide a test more difficult than any of the freshmen have faced yet.

Asked what he'll tell a team mixed with youth and experience, Mitchell said to play hard and seize the opportunity.

"I want to win in the worst way," Mitchell said. "This is a very important game. We need to win it and we want to win it, but really it's just full of opportunity for our players. If we win, it's a fantastic thing for us. We'll learn through the win. If we get beat, these players have now played in the third game of their career. They've played at a high level. All the external things around them that we're trying to shield them from, inevitably they have to deal with those things. I just think it's a day full of opportunity for these young kids. We must find something positive out of this experience when they make the decision to play hard."

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