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UK Hoops set to take show on the road against No. 3 Notre Dame

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Junior guard A'dia Mathies is expected to return to action against No. 3 Notre Dame on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Junior guard A'dia Mathies is expected to return to action against No. 3 Notre Dame on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It's not too often that a basketball team has a nine-game home stand like the one UK Hoops just concluded. Following a season-opening trip to Morehead State, Matthew Mitchell and his Kentucky team set up shop in Lexington for over a month.

Suffice to say, they've taken full advantage.

The Wildcats ran their record to a perfect 10-0, ascending to top-ten rankings in both major polls. The Cats have enjoyed wins over a pair of highly ranked opponents in Louisville and Duke, declaring themselves contenders both in the Southeastern Conference and on a national level in the process.

The run has been a good one, with thousands of UK fans streaming into Memorial Coliseum (and Rupp Arena) to take in the festivities. However, it's now time for the Wildcats to pack up amd play outside the Commonwealth for the first time this season against third-ranked Notre Dame at 1 p.m. on Sunday on ESPNU.

"It's something that the team will have to learn to deal with," Mitchell said. "The schedule just fell the way that it did this year. There was no real concerted effort to have it fall the way it did, but this clearly is a bigger challenge than we've had."

The long home stretch has not been without its obstacles, but now that UK is hitting the road for the first time in 36 days, the Wildcats will be facing a challenge the likes of which they have not yet seen in the Fighting Irish (9-1). Not only will they go up against the national runners up from a season ago, but they will be doing it in front of an expected sell-out crowd at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind.

"Both of the big wins we had against Louisville and Duke were in front of our fans," Mitchell said. "We talk about how important our fans are by showing up and giving us energy, so now the challenge is, we really have to stick together. We've been focusing on that all week long. We're not going to have the home crowd on our side, so now where does the energy come from?"

No longer will UK's high-pressure style of play be fueled by its home fans. Instead, the Wildcats must look inward to get themselves going, which is something they'll have to do more and more often as the season progresses.

"It must come from our players," Mitchell said. "We can't get down on negative plays, we can't start going against each other, we just really have to stick together in what I think will be a challenging environment. It's a great opportunity for our team, because clearly when you get into conference play you have to start dealing with some of that."

Absent the atmosphere, Notre Dame would pose a stiff test on its own. The Irish have outscored their opponents by 29.1 points per game, including a smothering 66-38 win at No. 12/14 Purdue their last time out. Notre Dame forced 24 turnovers and held the Boilermakers to 13-for-54 (24.1 percent) shooting from the field.

"We're going to play what I think is without a doubt the most intense defense that we've seen yet from a pressure standpoint," Mitchell said.

Notre Dame has the depth, athleticism and willingness to go possession for possession with UK in an up-and-down game, which is exactly what happened a season ago when these two teams faced off in Lexington. The Wildcats won 81-76 in a game that saw the two teams attempt a combined 142 shots.

Even though UK forced just 17 turnovers, the Wildcats took care of the ball so well (only 12 turnovers) that they won the turnover battle. Mitchell will be looking for his team to force significantly more turnovers this time around, but the overall goal remains the same. UK and Notre Dame, coming into this week's games, rank first and second nationally in turnover margin at +17.0 and +11.2, respectively.

"They just have a lot of great athleticism and can get up and down the floor, so it could be a real fast-paced game," Mitchell said. "Clearly, for us, turnover margin is going to be so important because we can't cough it up a bunch up there and expect to win, I don't believe."

Fortunately, junior guard A'dia Mathies, who is eighth in the nation in steals per game at 4.1, is expected to be available to play after a sprained ankle kept her out of Sunday's game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

"A'dia bounced back pretty nicely from her ankle injury," Mitchell said. "It took her a little while to get going yesterday. We had a conversation mid-practice where I wanted to know if she was OK or does she not need to be practicing. She really picked it up in the latter portion of practice and looked good. We don't anticipate, unless there's something that happens, we don't anticipate that being a major issue for our team on Sunday."

For the first time, Mathies will also be joined on the floor by sophomore forward Samarie Walker, who sat out the past year following her transfer from Connecticut. With her athleticism and 6-foot-1 frame, she should help cut into the 51-35 rebounding edge Notre Dame held over Kentucky in their matchup a season ago.

Walker will have to cope with the nerves of playing her first game since January, but Mitchell has treated her as a full member of the team all along, which has helped her significantly as she approaches her first game in a Kentucky uniform.

"What we've really tried all season long is to practice her as if she were a starter or would have the chance to start," Mitchell said. "We've talked about them earning time in practice and I haven't seen a huge difference. I thought maybe she might be hyped up in a negative way, and tight, but she's performed great."

No one, other than possibly Mitchell, can be sure of the role she will play, but Walker is going into her first game with the approach that she's willing to do anything that's asked of her.

"I can definitely add some height, be another body out there, rebounding, anything Coach needs I feel like I can give it to him," Walker said.

One of her final games with UConn was on the road against Notre Dame, so she has a good idea what she'll be up against, especially on the glass. More than anything else, that will be the area she'll be looking to impact.

"They're all great rebounders, from their point guards down to the last one on the bench," Walker said. "That's definitely one thing we have to do, is rebound the ball against them."

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