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Toughness the name of the game as UK Hoops prepares for South Carolina

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Jennifer O'Neill and the Kentucky Wildcats take a 17-game winning streak into a Thursday night matchup with South Carolina. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill and the Kentucky Wildcats take a 17-game winning streak into a Thursday night matchup with South Carolina. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Already this season, Kentucky has faced the defending national champion, Baylor. Matthew Mitchell's team has taken on a pair of other ranked opponents and seven more foes who reached the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Wildcats, however, haven't seen anyone the likes of South Carolina, not in terms of Mitchell's word of the day at his customary pre-game press conference.

"We've played some tough teams, but I'm telling you: I just have an unbelievable amount of respect for their program and how they play," Mitchell said. "I don't know that there's anybody tougher than they are."

In fact, Mitchell doesn't think No. 5/4 UK (18-1, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) will face another opponent quite like the one the Cats will face on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in Columbia, S.C., other than when the Gamecocks visit Lexington for a rematch in mid-February.

"I really think that we will have to play extremely tough against them to have success in the game and I can't think of anybody I'd compare them to," Mitchell said.

Mitchell believes the Gamecocks have taken on the personality of their coach, Dawn Staley, and it begins on defense. No. 18/14 South Carolina (16-3, 4-2 SEC) ranks first in the SEC in both points allowed (47.6 per game) and field-goal percentage defense (34.3). The Gamecocks have held their opponents under 50 points in 15 of 19 games this season and allowed 60 points or more just once.

"I think that this is really becoming one of the most hotly contested rivalries in our conference," Mitchell said. "We play South Carolina twice every year and, as you go back and review the history of these games over the last five or six years, it's two teams that really, really play hard and get after each other."

Mitchell and Staley are each in their sixth seasons leading their two programs, during which time UK holds a 7-3 series advantage. Six of the matchups have been decided by single digits, including the last three. Over that three-game stretch, UK is averaging 60.0 points per game, but never have the Cats brought an offense so dynamic into a matchup with South Carolina.

UK is scoring nearly 80 points per game on the season and has tallied 100- and 97-point outings in its last two SEC games. Mitchell has tweaked his offense to get the most out of post players DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker, but most of UK's offensive growth can be attributed simply to having good players all over the place.

"More times than not you have five players on the court that can score," Mitchell said. "I was looking at last year's game (against South Carolina) and we were getting some open shots, but the people who were getting them weren't making them. We're just making more shots this year."

But as it has been established, UK hasn't done any of its scoring this season against South Carolina's defense.

"It'll be a great test," Mitchell said. "I don't know what it will do as far as us figuring out where our offense is. I think we'll have to play well offensively and really place a high value on toughness plays in this game."

No one will be tested more sternly on Thursday than Jennifer O'Neill.

The sophomore has undergone a tremendous evolution over the last month, becoming UK's catalyst at point guard. Since a scoreless outing against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 21, she has scored in double figures in seven of eight games, averaging 13.9 points and 4.4 assists.

Mitchell has regularly praised O'Neill of late for the way she pushes the tempo. The impact of that has never been clearer than on Tuesday as UK prepared for South Carolina.

"She had to leave practice yesterday early for class and our practice was different in that 20 minutes that she had to leave early," Mitchell said. "And it wasn't a bad practice; it was just different. That's a real compliment to Jennifer."

Against a South Carolina team that thrives in the half-court, generating opportunities for herself and her teammates before the defense is set could be particularly valuable.

"I think that Jennifer's role in this game and in every game in the league is very important because I think that she is doing something that I don't see any other guard right now doing as consistently as she is," Mitchell said. "She's really in attack mode whether our opponent misses or makes the shot."

With Kentucky and South Carolina matching up, there will likely be many more misses than makes. The Cats trail only South Carolina in the SEC in scoring defense at 51.8 points per game and their opponents are shooting 37.2 percent from the field.

Missed shots, of course, lead to rebounds, which is where this game could be decided. In that area, South Carolina leads all SEC teams in rebounding margin at +11.6 and has outrebounded conference opponents alone by 7.8 per game.

"That is a staggering number in this league," Mitchell said.

The good news for the Cats is they aren't too bad on the glass themselves. Overall, UK is second in the SEC in rebounding margin at +6.9 and actually has actually been better than South Carolina in conference games with a +8.0 margin.

Replicating that success on the glass won't be easy. But like anything else against South Carolina, it will have to start with toughness.

"Coach Staley I think is one of the toughest coaches to prepare for," Mitchell said. "Her teams are really hard to prepare for because they're going to play so incredibly tough. This will be a real test for us."

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