A head coach lets go of some measure of control when giving his team for a break around the holidays. It's impossible to know what players will do (or eat) spending time back home and therefore impossible to predict how they will respond in practice and games shortly thereafter.
Matthew Mitchell accepted that risk in dismissing his Kentucky Wildcats for four days, but was rewarded by some of the season's best practices when they returned. On Friday night, the Cats transferred that into game action.
"I'm really happy we were able to come back from the break and play with tremendous effort," Mitchell said. "You never know. Sometimes we haven't been able to do that."
UK delivered a dominant performance in playing its first home game since Dec. 9, defeating Alcorn State 90-23 in Memorial Coliseum and setting a school record for fewest points allowed in a single game. After leading just 5-4 at the first media timeout, the Cats reeled off a 20-1 run to build a lead that would never fall below 18 points the rest of the way.
"Anytime you do something that hasn't been done before, you have to credit the players," Mitchell said. "I don't care who you're playing, that's tough to do."
At one point, the Cats held Alcorn State without a field goal for 19 minutes, 27 seconds. Alcorn State made just 7-of-35 (20 percent) of its field goals and had one assist against 36 turnovers.
"I thought the players really hung in there and kept hustling all night," Mitchell said. "I think that's what the margin is what it ended up being. Those are not easy things to do. It's not easy to win a game like that and you just have to keep hustling and trying really hard."
Mitchell credited Samarie Walker and Bria Goss for setting the tone early with their effort and the two finished as the game's leading scorers with 21 and 18 points, respectively. After missing her first three shots, Walker finished shooting 8 for 13.
"It was a struggle for me in the beginning offensively, but my teammates encouraged me and pushed me to continue to work hard," Walker said.
Her impact extended well beyond scoring, as she added 14 rebounds, five steals and three blocks. Her fellow front-court starter, DeNesha Stallworth, joined her in posting a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. If not for the fact that she played just 23 minutes, she may have posted a triple-double as she finished with seven assists.
"I was sort of fussing at her during the game because I didn't think she was playing all that great," Mitchell said. "And then you look at her stat line and it's really something else."
Mitchell will be looking for similar production on Sunday when the Cats face a quick turnaround and a tough Marist team on Sunday at 1 p.m. in their nonconference finale. The Red Foxes have earned automatic bids to the last seven NCAA Tournaments, so the Cats know they're in for a test even though they haven't even begun preparations for Marist.
"I have not had a chance to watch them, but I do know, just being familiar with their program, that they will be very well-coached, very tough to guard," Mitchell said. "They will not miss shots around the basket, we'll have to play really tough defense."
Conwright out for season with torn ACL
UK will be without Maegan Conwright for the Marist game and much longer. In practice this week, the junior guard sustained an injury to her left knee and an MRI confirmed that she had suffered a torn ACL. She will soon undergo reconstructive surgery but will miss the remainder of the season.
"We're real sad about that, but we will, I know, do a great job giving her support to rehab and get that surgery and get back onto a healthy track," Mitchell said.