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Homecoming UK Hoops looks for final springboard into SEC play

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DeNesha Stallworth has scored in double figures in each of Kentucky's last eight games. (Chet White, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth has scored in double figures in each of Kentucky's last eight games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's been an eventful December for Matthew Mitchell's Kentucky team.

The Wildcats have played five games and won all of them, including three over NCAA Tournament teams from last year. They've taken final exams and finished the fall semester. They've taken road trips near and far, traveling 75 miles to rival Louisville and more than 2,000 for a pair of games in California. They've been through multi-practice days with class out of session and taken four days off to spend the holidays with their families.

And yet, there are still four days and two games left in 2012.

"Some things just dictate the necessity where the games come on the schedule from a time standpoint," Mitchell said. "December was a real challenging month for us and I am looking for us to finish it strong. We need to try to earn these victories this weekend."

Those two opportunities for wins will come on Friday at 7 p.m. ET vs. Alcorn State and Sunday at 1 p.m. vs. Marist, UK's final nonconference outings before welcoming Florida on Jan. 3 for the start of Southeastern Conference play.. The games will be the first the Cats have played in Memorial Coliseum in almost three weeks and they are anxious to get back in front of their home fans. Mitchell expects those fans will see a team that has evolved in general, but particularly in one area.

"We have really started to blossom in our post game," Mitchell said, "especially our two starting posts are starting to play off of each other really well and get a feel for each other and that's an exciting combination."

Of course, DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker are the two post players to whom Mitchell is referring. They are averaging a combined 21.2 points and 13.1 rebounds. Players - both starters and reserves - listed as forwards or centers on last year's roster combined to average 23.2 points and 18.9 rebounds.

Entering the season, Mitchell certainly believed Stallworth and Walker were capable of that level of production. From day one, he inserted the pair into his starting lineup, committing to playing two bigs after he played just one at a time most of last season. The results, however, weren't immediate. Stallworth had some struggles adjusting to UK's signature pace of play and in turn experienced a dip in confidence.

In her moment of need, Stallworth turned to her fellow transfer.

"Samarie had a little more experience than me just transferring from Connecticut to Kentucky with her playing before me so it was really good," Stallworth said. "She was very helpful with helping me just transitioning and getting back to playing in Kentucky's style."

Walker had been through a similar transition. She had spent a year practicing with her new team, giving her a false sense that she would seamlessly integrate herself when she played her first game. Instead, she failed to score in double figures in seven of her first eight games before an 18-point, nine-rebound outburst in a 69-64 slugfest at Georgia.

"She just told me, 'Something just clicks and you realize that you just have to play,' " Stallworth said. "And when it did click, everything became a lot easier and it just flows better."

Stallworth didn't point out a specific time when it all came together, but it was clear it had happened when she averaged 15.7 points and 7.0 rebounds over a three-game stretch against Louisville, DePaul and Middle Tennessee State - UK's best wins of the season.

She carried it forward as she returned to her home state for wins over Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara. Stallworth was still a good distance away from her hometown of Richmond, Calif., but her family was there as she extended her streak of games scoring in double figures to eight.

"It was beautiful," Stallworth said of the trip west. "I had such a great time even spending it with my teammates and my family was there. It felt really good just to play in front of my family."

Walker, meanwhile, was making her first trip to Southern California. She had her third double-double in the win over UCSB, but the highlight of the trip was getting a look at the famous Hollywood sign.

"I was so excited to see it I almost started crying honestly," Walker said.

Stallworth and Walker are perfect examples of the way the Cats approached the trip. They were enthusiastic about the off-court opportunities they had, but their performance in practice and games was unaffected.

"We were able to mix some real important basketball with some real fun opportunities for them and the way they handled themselves, I was really impressed with their maturity levels," Mitchell said. "When it was time to really focus and practice and work hard, they did that."

As soon as the trip was over, players were dismissed for four days for Christmas. Following a few days of rest, family time and eating, they returned and have once again shown no ill effects. As a result, Mitchell expects the thousands that spend their Friday night in Memorial will like what they see.

"I think they will see that we have made some improvements and, if we can play like we practiced (on Thursday), I think they will be excited," Mitchell said.

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