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Bishop's 'unexpected' effort lifts UK Hoops to win over LSU

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Azia Bishop had a career-high 17 points off the bench in UK's 73-60 win over LSU on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Azia Bishop had a career-high 17 points off the bench in UK's 73-60 win over LSU on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Like any coach, Matthew Mitchell is adamant about the connection between preparation and performance in competition.

He has been known to keep players out of his in-game rotation based on lackluster effort in practice, which put Azia Bishop's role in Kentucky's game against LSU on Sunday in peril. Still wearing a splint after breaking a bone in her left hand three weeks ago, Bishop admitted freely that the last two days were not her best in the gym.

"I just wasn't mentally focused and not going hard and giving a lot of effort," Bishop said.

Mitchell agreed with the assessment, but added a little flare in his description of Bishop in practice.

"It just has been a disaster the last few days," Mitchell said.

Still, Mitchell decided to give Bishop a chance on game day. On a few occasions last season, she turned in solid contributions on the heels of poor practices, most notably in a win over Duke in Rupp Arena when she had 12 points and 11 rebounds.

"I've had a couple rough two practices and Coach got on me a lot, told me that I needed to come out and play hard," Bishop said.

Everything she had not done in practice, Bishop did in Sunday's game. In just 20 minutes, she tallied a career-high 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. She was on the floor for the final 9:10, playing a major role as Kentucky (19-2, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) got back in the win column with a 73-60 victory over LSU (12-8, 3-4 SEC).

"I did not expect that kind of performance, but I am happy that we got it," Mitchell said.

Until the waning moments of the first half, there was little reason to think it was coming. Bishop had just three points as the clocked ticked under a minute before she grabbed a steal with 47 seconds that looked like might spark her afternoon. Instead, she missed a wide-open layup on the ensuing fast break.

At that point, Mitchell may have thought it time to close the book on any hopes of getting a meaningful contribution from the talented sophomore forward/center, but Bishop quickly reasserted herself. Seconds later, after LSU had tied the score at 26-all with a basket, the ball came to Bishop at the top of the key. Without hesitation, she took and drilled a 3-pointer that would give UK a lead it would never relinquish.

"I knew I had to get it back and I was open so I took it," Bishop said. "It gave me some confidence."

She scored on a put-back seconds later to give the Wildcats the 31-26 advantage they would take to the locker room.

"I think she was a big spark," Jennifer O'Neill said. "Especially when they were in the zone, she was open a lot. She was able to flash and be a presence and just turn around and shoot."

Bishop wasn't the only Cat to make a surprising impact. Janee Thompson has had struggles similar to Bishop in practice and the freshman point guard was also on the floor in the clutch. She had eight points and three assists in 18 minutes, the most she has played since a blowout win over Alcorn State on Dec. 28. For the first time all season, Mitchell extensively used a lineup featuring two point guards in an effort to combat LSU's zone defense.

"You don't get a lot of opportunity against LSU," Mitchell said. "And when you do, you have to punch a gap, you have to shoot a shot, you have to make a pass and she is a very talented basketball player in that regard. She can make plays."

Bishop, however, was the big story. No one has ever questioned the talent of the 6-foot-3 former McDonald's All-American, but consistency has always been the enemy.

"I think with Azia sometimes, her mentality's a bit fragile and she gets caught up in things that aren't important and worried about different things instead of just kind of taking it one practice at a time, one practice segment at a time," Mitchell said. "She just gets out of sorts and the injury with the splint, she worried about, 'Can I catch?' instead of just catching the ball and playing."

Any lingering doubts about her health were assuaged by her big game, but it also only served to reinforce Mitchell's frustration with the way she has practiced of late. He's of course happy about her helping carry UK to victory, but he is already thinking about how to coax similar performances out of her on the practice floor during the Cats' week off before a game next Sunday against Georgia.

"We will celebrate this victory and her good performance today," Mitchell said. "It just puts her in a tough spot now because we all see what she can do. She just has to come back and try to become a dependable player for us. If she does, it transforms our basketball team."

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