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Tennessee trip affords UK Hoops major opportunity

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A'dia Mathies scored with 4.2 seconds left to lift UK to a 61-60 win over Tennessee on Jan. 12. (Chet White, UK Athletics) A'dia Mathies scored with 4.2 seconds left to lift UK to a 61-60 win over Tennessee on Jan. 12. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Matthew Mitchell was asked about Tennessee's loss to South Carolina this past week, he began his answer as you would expect a coach to do.

He and his coaching staff watched the game that gave Kentucky a two-game lead in the Southeastern Conference race, but he said their focus was trained on what the Wildcats could learn about their upcoming matchup against the Lady Volunteers.

"At the end, I was just trying to think of some things that we could do well against them, some things that we are going to have to do well against them," Mitchell said.

Ultimately though, Mitchell gave voice to what every UK Hoops fan was thinking.

"I think anyone would be lying if they were to say that was not a good development for us," Mitchell said. "I mean, you want as much separation as you can have."

Tennessee's loss on UK's open date changes the dynamic of Monday's matchup between the two teams at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Yes, the Cats still have to do something they've never done and win in Thompson-Boling Arena, but the narrative entering the game is different.

For the No. 7 Cats (21-3, 10-1 SEC), the trip to Knoxville, Tenn., is nothing but an opportunity. Instead of needing a victory just to hold onto sole possession of first place, the Cats can put a sleeper hold on the SEC race with a victory and grab a three-game lead with just four games to play. Tennessee (17-7, 8-3 SEC), on the other hand, will need to protect its home floor to stay in realistic contention in the conference.

"We are excited about it, we are looking forward to it and we will see what happens on Monday," Mitchell said.

The game also provides UK with a chance to grab a two-game sweep of the Lady Vols in regular season play for the first time in school history, as the Cats prevailed in a 61-60 thriller in Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 12. Kentucky needed a last-second shot from A'dia Mathies to overcome a furious Tennessee rally in the final minutes.

Mitchell called his team "real fortunate" to survive that first matchup and he knows the Cats will need a better effort to knock off the SEC's preeminent power on the road.

"We learned a lot from that game and we are working hard to try to make some corrections that didn't go well in that game and just get as prepared as we can for what we know will be a very, very tough challenge for our team," Mitchell said.

UK will also be tasked with bouncing back from its first SEC loss of the season, a 10-point defeat at LSU that saw the Cats score a season-low 51 points in a physical battle.

"We got into a game that happens every now and again where we are unable to control the tempo," Mitchell said. "That is complete credit to LSU because I am certain that many teams want to do that."

The Cats will have had eight days without a game by the time they take the floor on Monday, which has been hard for Mitchell, who wants to get back on the floor, but beneficial to his team.

"It was great, and they needed a little time off, so I think it was really good for them," Mitchell said. "We had some good work yesterday. The great thing about us right now is we have a chance to get better."

That improvement has to take place, especially on the offensive end. UK shot just 21-of-60 (35.0 percent) against LSU, and only Mathies and Keyla Snowden reached double figures.

While some coaches might despair over having an offense needing so much improvement, Mitchell looks on the bright side. UK has tied the best start in school history and is in contention to win its first SEC title in three decades, but they still have room for growth.

"We are not operating at a real high level offensively right now," Mitchell said. "I think that is something that we can improve on. So, to be at this stage in the season, and be in the position we are in, and still have a chance of getting better is a real positive thing."

Mathies, UK's leading scorer and conference player of the year candidate, doesn't have as much room for improvement as her teammates in terms of skill and execution, but there is a key step forward she can take in terms of her approach.

SEC opponents have employed a physical defensive style against Mathies, forcing officials to make repeated calls throughout the game. Mitchell is asking his star junior guard to understand it's impossible for every bump she plays through to be called.

"I think that she has a hard time sometimes dealing with acceptance," Mitchell said. "I think she just needs to accept sometimes that there is very little she can do about how the referees are going to call (the game)."

With as strong and athletic a group as any team in the country, Tennessee figures to use that same strategy to defend Mathies, who scored a career-high 35 points her first time against the Lady Vols.

Just as Mitchell is viewing this matchup with Tennessee and the Cats' offensive struggles with a "glass half full" mentality, he wants Mathies to do the same in the face of the challenges she will face.

"That is how people are going to play her," Mitchell said. "They are going to try to get her out of her game. That is a great opportunity for her."

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