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UK Hoops looking to sustain momentum, have some fun during California trip

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Winners of seven straight, the Wildcats travel to California for two games this week. (Michael Reaves, UK Athletics) Winners of seven straight, the Wildcats travel to California for two games this week. (Michael Reaves, UK Athletics)
Kentucky had just completed a double-digit comeback at top-10 Louisville. Janee Thompson and Azia Bishop had just come through with the late-game heroics that gave the Wildcats their first win on their archrival's home floor since 1999.

Their coach, however, had a message to deliver that wasn't easy to hear. Once he and his team had finished celebrating their biggest victory of the season, Matthew Mitchell told the Cats they had not played up to his standards.

"We were not pleased at all with how we had played, and that's no disrespect whatsoever to Louisville," Mitchell said. "Louisville did a lot of things that made it difficult for us, but just the way that we played together in that game and...our lack of focus and cohesiveness really bothered me and we were so fortunate to win."

Overcoming a 14-point U of L lead with a 27-12 game-ending run demonstrated the kind of will to win that could carry the Cats in late-round NCAA Tournament games. But Mitchell saw elements of his team play that would never allow UK to get to that point if those things weren't addressed. In spite of the victory, he knew he had to tell some tough truths.

"I think that is just something that we try to adhere to as close as we can as our number one principle that we build the program on is honesty," Mitchell said. "Whether you win or lose sometimes you still need to be honest with the team with what you see on film."

Because honesty had been so well established as a core tenet of the program, Mitchell's players knew he wasn't using some sort of devious coaching ploy when he went after them in the days after the Louisville win. Because of that, Mitchell's players knew they had to respond with hard work in practice.

In dominating wins over DePaul and Middle Tennessee State the following Friday and Sunday, the fruits of their labor were on display. The No. 7/6 Cats (8-1) jumped out to a 25-2 lead over the Blue Demons en route to a 96-64 win, then prevailed in very different fashion two days later. UK used defense to smother MTSU, 68-46.

"They had some tough practices and I thought they responded really, really well particularly on the defensive end," Mitchell said. "We just made it difficult for either one of those teams, DePaul or Middle Tennessee, to do very much that they wanted to do."

Responding as well as the Cats did in the wake of a big win might be even more impressive than the way they bounced back from a loss at Baylor in November.

"That was a good sign that they understood we were fortunate to win, we didn't get our heads in the clouds that we had won a game on the road against our rival and I thought that did show something from them and show something positive," Mitchell said.

The Cats would have to wait nine days for another opportunity to show more such signs and try to extend their seven-game winning streak.

Last week was spent balancing final exams and practice obligations, but the fall semester is now over. On Sunday, the team departed for California for a two-game road swing. UK will take on Pepperdine at 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday and UC Santa Barbara at 6 p.m. on Friday.

"Being able to take some time as a team to get together and spend a good amount of time together I think will be beneficial," Mitchell said. "We are looking forward to it, we will need to go out and play real well to get two wins and I think that will be important heading into Christmas."

The trip will afford a pair of California natives - Brittany Henderson of Pasadena and DeNesha Stallworth of Richmond - an opportunity to play close to home.

"It's tough on their family and friends to get to watch them," Mitchell said. "We are real fortunate that most of our players are pretty close to or at least on the East Coast where they can get into Lexington pretty easily. Just to get them out there and give them that experience in playing in front of family and friends is important."

That's not the only reason why Mitchell planned the trip. Of course, spending extended time together as a team and playing in a pair of unfamiliar road environments are pluses as the Cats build for March, but Mitchell also put it on the schedule as a sort of reward.

The hotel where the team will stay in Santa Barbara is located within walking distance of the beach. The Cats will also head to Los Angeles on Wednesday night to watch a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Hornets to see Eric Bledsoe, Anthony Davis and Darius Miller.

"They have worked hard this semester, need to stay focused and take care of business out there," Mitchell said. "Get some wins but hopefully we can have some fun while we are there too."

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