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UK Hoops long on motivation with Louisville coming to town

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Amber Smith helped lead UK to a 101-67 win the last time the Wildcats faced Louisville in Memorial Coliseum. (UK Athletics) Amber Smith helped lead UK to a 101-67 win the last time the Wildcats faced Louisville in Memorial Coliseum. (UK Athletics)
Amber Smith had to watch from the sidelines as her teammates were blitzed by Louisville in their worst loss of the 2010-11 season. Recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, she was helpless to steady the Cats as they committed 22 turnovers. Smith couldn't get on the floor to add her trademark intensity to a defensive effort head coach Matthew Mitchell called the worst since implementing the high pressure style that has come to define UK Hoops.

Revenge may not be the right word, but Kentucky isn't about to let what Louisville did to them in last year's 78-52 loss in the KFC Yum! Center happen again.

The loss has been marinating in the Wildcats' consciousness for nearly a full year now, for Smith especially. Immediately after a win over Mississippi Valley State on Sunday, UK's last before the rematch with the rival Cardinals, Smith revealed exactly what's been on her mind all this time.

"The number 26," the senior point guard said. "We lost by 26 and I was on the bench, and couldn't do anything about it. That just hurt. It is the biggest game of the season because it is the next one, but we are all just looking forward to it. I can't wait, I'm ready right now."

Smith's wait is very nearly over, as Kentucky (7-0) and Louisville (7-1) face off on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum. As if she and her teammates needed any more motivation, the matchup between the No. 12/10 Wildcats and No. 10/11 Cardinals marks the first time in the 48 "Battle of the Bluegrass" games that both teams are rated in the top 15 nationally.

"I'm definitely excited for our game on Sunday," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It will be a huge challenge and our toughest challenge by far this season. I think we're find out a lot about our team."

As excited as Mitchell is for the rivalry game and how much it means to the state as a whole, he's balancing that excitement with an awareness of how important the game is to his team's development. UK Hoops has made it through the early portion of its non-conference schedule with a perfect record. The closest game UK has played was a 17-point win over Southern Miss, so facing their "toughest challenge" so far this season will be good for the Wildcats.

"In the bigger picture, I think it's a very useful game because they're so good and have so many weapons we'll have to play well," Mitchell said. "Their guards are so good that they can make you look bad at times and I'm sure they will. We've made a ton of mistakes this year and we're 7-0. Sometimes the other team just couldn't take advantage of it. I think Louisville will be able to take advantage of some mistakes."

Louisville certainly took advantage of UK's mistakes a season ago as the Cardinals shot 27-of-55 against the normally staunch Wildcat defense. Then-freshman guard Schoni Schimmel committed eight turnovers in the game, but more than made up for them with a dazzling 26-point, six-assist outing. The Cardinals exploited late rotation from UK off traps to hit 12-of-21 3-pointers in the game, six of which came from Schimmel.

"I thought Louisville played much harder than we did last year and you saw the result," Mitchell said.

Mitchell will embrace any additional motivation Smith and his other players glean from the 2010 defeat, but he can think of better ways to spend his time in practice than harping on what happened 364 days ago come Sunday.

"I really think for us the biggest thing we need to focus on is not what happened last year but that the players that are on the floor for the University of Louisville are very, very good," Mitchell said. "They're well coached and they are a tough, tough basketball team. I think trying to prepare for things that help you be successful in the game is probably where your energy needs to be focused."

Smith figures to come out in high gear for Louisville, but Mitchell expects all of his players to approach Sunday's game the same way. He does not believe anyone on the roster will be short on motivation, and if they are, the 8,000-plus Wildcat faithful in attendance should quickly do the trick.

"As I've watched them practice, I don't think motivation is going to be the biggest challenge we face," Mitchell said. "The crowd is going to be into it and I think our players understand it's a big game."

UK officially announced the Louisville game as a sellout on Tuesday and Mitchell expects nothing less than a raucous environment to be created by the fans who fill Memorial.

"I think they'll be energetic," Mitchell said. "I think it will be a great, great atmosphere. Every time we take the floor in Memorial Coliseum, we're excited and the more people we have cheering for us, the more exciting it is. I think it's fantastic."

It means a great deal to the fifth-year coach for his fans to understand how important the Louisville game is and respond by coming out in droves. The ball, though, is now in his team's court, both in the literal and figurative sense.

"I really, really appreciate it and it will make for a special afternoon," Mitchell said. "Now we need to go out and play and give them something to cheer for."

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