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UK Hoops hoping to get back on track with home court boost

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A'dia Mathies scored 26 points as UK's furious comeback bid fell short against Alabama. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) A'dia Mathies scored 26 points as UK's furious comeback bid fell short against Alabama. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Quite a bit has changed since the last time the Kentucky Wildcats played in Memorial Coliseum.

After a win over Ole Miss on Feb. 2, UK Hoops was 21-2 on the season with a perfect 10-0 mark in Southeastern Conference play. The Cats were firmly in control as they sought to win their first conference title in 30 years, up two games in the loss column on second-place Tennessee.

Since then, the road has been unkind to Matthew Mitchell's team. UK has lost three straight at LSU, Tennessee and Alabama.

At long last though, the Cats are returning to the comforts of a building in which they've lost just twice in the last three seasons.

"We have obviously been through a tough spot here - a tough patch of basketball," Mitchell said on Friday. "Our team really needs our fans to come out Monday night. I know it's a late tip, but this team has been terrific at home and we've had a great season up to this point at home in Memorial and we need a big crowd for a very, very important game against Vanderbilt."

For Monday's 9 p.m. tip against Vanderbilt (19-6, 8-5 SEC) on ESPN2, No. 7/8 Kentucky will be relying on a home crowd that's helped the Cats to a perfect 16-0 mark in Lexington this season. More than anything else, UK Hoops needs to regain the swagger that lifted the team into the top five of the coaches' poll just three weeks ago.

"I don't think you artificially can manufacture confidence," Mitchell said. "I think that's the wrong road to go down. I think that it is a great opportunity for us in this time of adversity, as much as adversity can be related to playing basketball."

Even with the ongoing three-game skid, UK remains in a tie for first place in the SEC with Tennessee, which is a really a testament to how well the Cats played through the first month of conference play.

Moreover, seven of the league's 12 teams have records of 8-5 or better, which means UK needs to right the ship quickly or face the prospect of not even getting a bye in the first round of the conference tournament.

"I think it's always a tough conference and it's interesting to see a lot of (teams) have similar records right now," Mitchell said. "Nobody's out running away with it and there's a lot of teams grouped up there at the top. It's a very good conference."

Further proving the depth of the league was UK's last game, which they lost on the road to last-place Alabama. The Crimson Tide raced out to a lead that reached 23 points before the Cats rallied in the second half only to fall short by a score of 77-75.

"If we just could have found a way to hang in there in the first half, you saw what happened in the second half," Mitchell said. "We played with the kind of defensive effort you would expect our team to play with, but we just failed to do that for about 12 crucial minutes in the first half. We acted as if the game was over."

As disappointed as Mitchell was by his team's approach for portions of that first half, he's still been impressed with the way his players have gone about their business following the loss. As a result, Mitchell's opinion of his team has probably been less affected by this losing streak than anyone else's.

"I think as a coach what you have to do is when you're winning it's not always as great as it looks, and when you're losing it's not as bad as it looks," Mitchell said. "What I'm excited about is we have a lot of really good players, young players that we're going to get to practice with over the next couple days and get the ship on the right course."

There's no question the Cats' recent play has been damaging to both their prospects in the conference race and their eventual seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the fact that it has happened in February and not March means the season goes on. However, Mitchell does know that if the Cats continue to execute poorly on offense and allow that poor execution to affect their defensive effort, the results on Monday night and beyond will be no different.

The 7,000-plus fans in Memorial will do everything in its power to provide a shot of energy to their Cats, but whether they return to the form of which they are capable is ultimately up to the players themselves.

"A win would do a world of good as far as building confidence," Mitchell said. "I think that's where the confidence is going to come from."

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