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Wildcats strengthen hold on SEC lead with 'Kentucky-level effort'

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Bria Goss led all scorers with 19 points in UK's 82-41 win over Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Bria Goss led all scorers with 19 points in UK's 82-41 win over Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Looking up at the scoreboard early in the first half against Ole Miss, you wouldn't have thought Matthew Mitchell would be particularly happy with his team.

Kentucky was coming off a "subpar effort" in 82-68 win over Alabama on Sunday, and Mitchell wanted to see his Wildcats respond with energy.

The Cats were tied 16-16 with 11:39 to play in the first half against a Rebel team that came into Thursday night's game in Memorial Coliseum on a four-game losing streak in conference play. Even so, the message Mitchell delivered when the Cats came to the sideline was a positive one.

"It was just tremendous energy and commitment from the players," Mitchell said. "They just stayed it all night and they kept hustling. Even when we were struggling scoring, I was not upset. I was so happy with the hustle because they hustled from the opening buzzer to the final one."

Shots simply were not following for the Cats, but the intensity they were lacking agaisnt the Crimson Tide was back with a vengeance. Mitchell was certain it would pay off sooner or later.

"If they would just keep hustling and try to turn turnovers into transition points, it would all work out for us and they did," Mitchell said. "They hung in there and kept giving great effort and we finally got on track there."

The Cats never relented.

No. 6/5 UK (21-2, 10-0 Southeastern Conference) came away with a dominant 82-41 win over Ole Miss (12-11, 2-8 SEC). Kentucky forced 36 turnovers, most of any game in SEC play this season and an in-conference record in the Mitchell era at UK. Bria Goss led all scorers with 19 points and Kastine Evans added 12 points and a career-high seven steals.

With a 21-7 burst to end the first half, UK held a 37-23 halftime lead. The Cats continued to build on it after the break, turning the final minutes into a prolonged celebration of the best start to a season in school history.

For the Rebels' head coach, the way UK played was far from unexpected.

"It definitely wasn't a surprise," Renee Ladner said. "Kentucky is a very good basketball team. Their team is on a mission. Their style of play affects everyone obviously in this league. Tonight, we got bit by the same bug: turnovers, pressure."

The party was punctuated by an announcement of South Carolina's 64-60 win over Tennessee that gave UK a two-game advantage in the loss column over the Lady Volunteers in the race for the SEC title. The players and coaches likely would have heard quickly of the news after the game if not for the announcement. They instead found out during one of the final timeout huddles of the game.

"I heard the crowd go crazy," Goss said.

With that cushion and a victory over Tennessee already in hand, the Cats are firmly in control of their own destiny in the conference race, which jibes with what Ladner saw on the floor from them.

"I believe they are (the best team in the SEC)," Ladner said. "I would say so, yes. They're definitely the hardest team to play against because of their relentless pressure and their ability to sub so deep. They wear you down."

For the players, hearing that kind of praise from an opposing coach is satisfying.

"That's good to hear because Coach wants us to be the toughest team and the fastest team and all these other adjectives that he says," Goss said.

The journey to get to this point in the season has been a long one and it began long before the first game of the season or even Big Blue Madness. Now that those goals are drawing nearer, the Cats aren't about to let them slip away without a fight.

"We've really been practicing like this ever since the summer," Goss said. "I guess that's when it really started. Now we're getting closer and closer and we want to take advantage of this opportunity that we have."

Of course, adding some padding to their SEC lead is a nice feeling, but Mitchell know it's not something UK should linger on.

"It's just a two-game lead and we have a bunch of games left so it's a positive development for us, no question about it, but it's nothing we can focus on or spend any time thinking about," Mitchell said.

Mitchell's message has been received: praise from opponents and seeing "Kentucky" atop the standings isn't going to get to this group's head.

"We're not overlooking anyone," Mitchell said. "Anybody can be beat. We're not going to be arrogant about anything and we are focusing on winning the championship."

Marlana VanHoose with UK Hoops.jpg
Inspirational national anthem performer kicks off evening

Marlana Vanhoose brought the crowd of 7,429 to its feet with a stirring rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before tipoff. Once she had finished the national anthem, Mitchell greeted her at mid-court to thank her.

"That was really moving," Mitchell said. "I just thought it was tremendous and I told her before tipoff that really brought tears to my eyes. I thought it was the best performance we've ever had here in Memorial Coliseum."

Vanhoose would have an encore of sorts as she returned to the floor after the game to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" to similar cheers.

The 16-year old was born with Cytomegalo virus and is blind due to an optical nerve that never formed. In spite of not being expected to live more than a year, she recovered from the virus and taught herself to play piano before the age of two.

To read more about Marlana, visit her website.

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