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Cats eager to tip off regular season, see some unfamiliar faces

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Bria Goss scored 16 points in just 19 minutes in UK's exhibition win over Bellarmine. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Bria Goss scored 16 points in just 19 minutes in UK's exhibition win over Bellarmine. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
No one is questioning the closeness of the Kentucky women's basketball team, but there have been times this preseason that the Wildcats weren't all that fond of one another.

Through intense practices and grueling workouts, players spent day after day with one another. They shared a common goal, but in pursuing it, they competed with one another, and never harder than one of the first times they went full-court.

Samarie Walker can't remember whether it was a four-on-four or five-on-five drill, but she remembers clearly what the Cats felt like afterward.

"I got sick of looking at my teammates, playing against them," the junior forward said. "We did this one drill in practice and afterwards we all hated each other. We argued first and then didn't talk to each other the rest of the day."

Bria Goss can remember that specific instance too, but it is not the only time she can remember things getting heated.

"It gets like that after practice," Goss said. "It gets pretty competitive in here (the practice gym). One time, we all came out here and competed, emotion ran so high that the locker room was quiet. After practice, I was almost preaching to the team and telling them, 'This what we need and this is what we got to do.' "

All that work, all that passion add up to a team singularly focused on the 2012-13 season, which begins officially at 1 p.m. on Saturday when UK plays host to Delaware State in both teams' first game. The hard work has been one thing, but the way last season ended in the Elite Eight has made this spring, summer and early fall that much more interminable.

"Coming off the loss to Connecticut, you just want to go back on the court," Goss said. "You never want to lose your last game. Since we lost that last game, you just want to hurry up and get back on the floor. Now that it's here, we're just thankful. It was a long offseason."

March's NCAA Tournament loss may be sticking with the Cats, but there are no such unhappy memories from last season's home slate. UK won all 18 of its home games last season, all but one of which were in Memorial Coliseum, to run its home winning to 20 and its home record to 48-2 dating back to the 2009-10 season.

"There isn't a lot of carry over and we don't look back a lot, but we do honor the accomplishments of teams that have come before us," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "The last three teams have lost two games in three years here and that is a big deal. And the only way you make that a bigger deal is to keep winning."

The offseason even included a workout specifically designed to keep the importance of winning at home in the forefront of players' minds. The Cats only did the "Protect the House" drill a few times, but that was more than enough to make the message sink in.

Strength and conditioning coach Stephanie Tracie-Simmons would lead the proceedings, having players read the names of World War I, World War II and Korean War soldiers whose names are written at the entrance to the building. The Cats would then jog up the ramp, enter the gym, do 50 double-under jump rope repetitions, run around the entire stadium and up and down the stairs before jump-roping one last time. Bernisha Pinkett finished first each time, but Goss reported that each member of the team improved her time.

"It's a tough workout, but we always compete with each other," Goss said.

While going through the workout, it's difficult to think about anything other than the next step, but once it's over, "Protect the House" is a reminder of what it takes to do just that.

"During it, I don't think we think about it," Walker said. "We just think about getting through it. Before and afterward, it's definitely something that's on our minds."

UK's first chance to defend its home floor will come against a team neither the coaches nor the players know much about. Delaware State returns a fair amount of experience from 2011-12, but Tamika Lewis is in her first year leading the Hornets as head coach. Mitchell isn't all that concerned about the unfamiliarity because, at this point, most of his focus is on his own team anyway.

"I think everyone this time of year is pretty much in the same boat," Mitchell said. "It's hard to prepare for somebody else when you are just trying to prepare yourself to be the kind of team you want to be. We're not ever overly concerned with the opponent, we always have a very healthy respect for who we are playing and we try the best we can."

Even though the game isn't for four days, Mitchell fielded more questions about unanimous No. 1 Baylor than Delaware State. UK will take on the Bears on Nov. 13 in the State Farm Classic in one of women's college basketball's marquee early-season games and the Cats would be lying if they said it's a matchup they haven't yet thought about. Nevertheless, they are following their coach's lead and taking things one step at a time.

"We see it up in our hallway by the locker room, we have a little countdown (to the Baylor game)," Walker said. "But that doesn't mean anything until we get past Saturday."

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