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Women's soccer taking the long view in SEC Tournament

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Jon Lipsitz and the Kentucky women's soccer team will open play in the SEC Tournament at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday against Missouri. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jon Lipsitz and the Kentucky women's soccer team will open play in the SEC Tournament at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday against Missouri. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)

On Wednesday, the Kentucky women's soccer team opens play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala. At 8:30 p.m. ET, the Wildcats will face a rematch with the Missouri Tigers, a team that handed them a 2-1 overtime loss less than a month ago. It's also a matchup of two teams hoping to position themselves for a bid to host a game or two in the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, UK has plenty to play for.

After closing out the regular season last Thursday with a 3-0 victory over Vanderbilt, Jon Lipsitz could have gone all in on this Missouri game, turning to every conceivable measure to win it. With the talent of the Tigers, it certainly would have been understandable if he had, but Lipsitz has chosen another path.

It's not that he doesn't want to win or that he doesn't respect UK's opponent. The fact is that Lipsitz has chosen to approach this week as one long tournament, not a series of games.

"We have to understand that we're trying to build not just toward one game," Lipsitz said. "We're trying to build toward multiple games. That's our goal in single-elimination situations: to play multiple games."

What that has meant over the six days since the Cats last played is plenty of rest to allow them to recover from the grind of having played 19 matches in a little more than two months. When they have practiced, the sessions have been short and sweet.

"When you're training for one game, it's very different from training for multiple games so we've treated this more like training for an entire tournament because that's our plan," Lipsitz said. "Therefore it's been very crisp and very detailed, but short training sessions."

The approach is a bold one, because neither Lipsitz nor any player on the roster has yet won a postseason game at Kentucky. Last season, UK lost its first match in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. Two years ago, the Cats fell in penalty kicks in the SEC Tournament to South Carolina before missing out on an NCAA big.

For the most part, Lipsitz has stayed away from changing what he says to his team with the postseason set to begin, with a notable exception.

"The one thing that I have said is that we're in postseason time now and this senior class has never won a postseason game," Lipsitz said. "We've got both the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament coming up. It's time for this program to take the next step. I think putting those expectations out there is important because those are our expectations."

Outside of that, Lipsitz is coaching the same as he did during a regular season that saw UK go 13-5-1 and earn the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The reason why he hasn't had to talk to a team with a sophomore - Arin Gilliland - and two freshmen - Courtney Raetzman and Kelli Hubly - among its top three scorers about the increased intensity of playing in a one-and-done format is the leadership of UK's five seniors.

"Quite honestly, the last time I felt this way about leadership was my last two years at Charlotte," Lipsitz said.

The two 49er teams to which Lipsitz compares these Wildcats won a combined 34 games and reached back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.

"It takes time to build leaders in a mold that you want as a coach," Lipsitz said. "This says absolutely nothing negative about the leadership that we've had before, but it takes time and it takes multiple leaders."

With that kind of leadership, Lipsitz has found that he doesn't have to concern himself as much with making sure his team is in the right frame of mind. He's not shirking that responsibility, but he trusts his veterans to set the tone.

"The other thing leadership allows coaches to do is stay more even-keeled," Lipsitz said. "If I'm not having to be the emotional center of a team and the players can be the emotional center, then coaches can coach and can worry about the tactics."

That's a particular luxury with Missouri looming.

The Tigers represent a marked contrast in style with UK's possession-based attacking approach, relying on athleticism to create chances while the Cats prefer to use passing to do so.

"We're just very different teams," Lipsitz said. "They are an extremely physical team, they are very direct, their backs want to get the ball forward as fast as possible and they want to get the ball behind the other team as fast as possible."

The Tigers used that approach to create 19 shots when they hosted and defeated the Wildcats on Oct. 5. Only one time this season has UK allowed more shots in a game.

"There are many different ways to play this game, just like in any sport," Lipsitz said. "There are lots of different ways to win and they've been very successful their way and we've been successful our way. It's not right or wrong, we're just different."

The winner of the UK-Missouri match - which will be live streamed on the SEC Digital Network - will go on to face either top-seeded Florida or No. 8 seed Ole Miss on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Cats are loving their beachfront hotel and temperatures in the mid-70s, but the biggest reason why they want to stick around Orange Beach is because they are enjoying each other's company so much.

"It's just about spending time together right now," Lipsitz said. "We've been in a bus all (Monday) and we were still in a bus (Tuesday) and we're enjoying ourselves. We're enjoying being together and I think that speaks for itself."

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