The Aggies came into Memorial Coliseum and put on an offensive show the opening half. Behind the bruising post presence of Kristi Bellock and Kelsey Bone, Texas A&M built a lead of as many as nine points while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field.
The Wildcats, however, didn't go into their locker room trailing 37-31 with their heads down.
"We knew it wasn't a 20-minute game," senior guard A'dia Mathies said.
That may seem quite the obvious statement, but for this Kentucky team, it's a meaningful one. Since summer workouts, the Cats have embraced "40 Minutes" as their theme for the season. They've applied it to all facets of their preparation and play, small scale to big picture. Against the No. 20/21 Aggies, UK Hoops applied the mantra in its most literal sense.
"We knew it was a 40-minute game and every four minutes we tried to go out there and play as aggressively as we can on offense and defense," Mathies said.
After the way the first half played out, the Cats couldn't help but think about defense first, particularly against Bellock and Bone, who combined for 24 points and 11 rebounds the first 20 minutes. Bone, averaging a double-double entering the game, was a force from the opening tip, scoring on A&M's first two possessions.
Samarie Walker, the defender assigned to Bone, told Mitchell at halftime that the start affected her confidence. In response, Mitchell tried to pick her up.
"(Bone) is just so dynamic and so tough and such a great post presence that we figured she was going to get some points," Mitchell said. "And so I just told her to let that go and we needed great defensive energy from everybody."
There was no questioning the Cats' response.
Texas A&M managed just 10-for-31 (32.3 percent) shooting in the second half, committing 11 turnovers in the process, as UK surged to a 65-62 win to set a school record with 31 straight home wins. As Mitchell predicted, Bone continued to get her baskets, finishing with 27 points and 15 rebounds, but the Cats (15-1, 3-0 SEC) made life hard on her and the Aggies (12-5, 2-1 SEC).
"We just turned it up, found another gear, found another level we could take our defense to and you could see it was really a tale of two halves," Mitchell said.
Though Walker and fellow post player DeNesha Stallworth stepped it up in the second half, the defensive effort started on the ball, which meant it started with Bria Goss.
A'dia Mathies (23 points) and Jennifer O'Neill (15 points and a career-high eight assists) were the offensive stars while Goss managed just seven points on 2-of-8 shooting, but she was a terror on the ball. Point guard Adrienne Pratcher, Goss's assignment, scored nine points in the first half, but just one after the break. Entering the contest averaging 5.1 assists, she managed just one with Goss harassing her.
"She was fantastic defensively and we would not have won without her," Mitchell said.
Goss played 34 minutes, which in a normal UK game would lead the team by a substantial margin. But due to injuries to Azia Bishop and Maegan Conwright and Mitchell's faith in his starters, Stallworth and Mathies each played more at 35 minutes. In the absence of depth, the Cats turned to their conditioning to wear down the Aggies. Before the game, Mitchell told strength and conditioning coach Stephanie Tracey-Simmons that he was expecting as much.
"I said, 'Steph, you're going to be the reason we win this one tonight,' because I knew we weren't going to have as deep a bench as maybe we do and some our bench might not be ready for this game," Mitchell said. "This was a high-level game. We're in tremendous shape, our kids are very tough and they had to be to win this one tonight."
UK's toughness was very nearly undone at the free-throw line. The Cats made just 8 of 19 attempts at the stripe, meaning the outcome remained in doubt until Peyton Little's off-balance 3 glanced off the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded. Mathies, who made one of her two free throws, isn't all that worried.
"It's just one of those times," Mathies said. "Sometimes we can make 10 in a row, sometimes we can't buy a bucket. I feel like it's one of those days and it's not really concern for us. But we're definitely going to work on it."
The Cats would be wise to follow through on that, because more close games in the final 13 of conference play should be expected. UK sits atop the league standings at 3-0, but has twice won home games that tested the team's motto down to the last second.
"I believe the SEC is the greatest conference," Mathies said. "Every time you go out there to play, you can take a loss. There is no team that you can (say), 'Oh, we're gonna beat them.' No, there's definitely none of those. Everybody (has) to prepare every night and stay focused every day and I think it just goes to show how great of a league this is."