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UK Hoops adding conventional elements to '40 minutes of dread'

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UK will look to extend the nation's second-longest home winning streak to 32 games on Thursday against Mississippi State. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK will look to extend the nation's second-longest home winning streak to 32 games on Thursday against Mississippi State. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When he first arrived in Lexington, Matthew Mitchell took a traditional approach to building Kentucky into a women's basketball contender. He tried to put together a roster that would allow him to field starting lineup of three perimeter players and two post players and coach a typical half-court game.

Two seasons and two NIT trips later, Mitchell realized he needed to change the game. He turned to a fast-paced, high-pressure brand of basketball before the 2009-10 season and his inventiveness paid off.

Three seasons, three NCAA Tournament trips and two Elite Eight bids later, Mitchell changed the game again, though not nearly so drastically. The Wildcats are taking a step back toward the traditional.

"For so many years what we had was really four guards and an undersized post, so this is much closer to maybe what I started out envisioning when I first got in Kentucky," Mitchell said.

Out to a 16-1 start and in the midst of a school-record 15-game winning streak heading into a Thursday matchup with Mississippi State at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats' success is largely due to DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker. At 6-foot-3 and 6-1, respectively, Stallworth and Walker have combined to form a post duo the likes of which UK has never had during the Mitchell era.

"This is the first time we've really used two posts consistently throughout the whole year," A'dia Mathies said. "Eventually by this time or way before, we would have had me, Kastine (Evans) or Maegan (Conwright) or somebody at the four position making it a quicker game."

Instead, the two transfers are playing a combined 50.2 minutes per game and 56.3 in UK's four Southeastern Conference wins, but it's not as if Stallworth and Walker are plodding oafs. They are more than capable of functioning in a full-court game, which is good because Mitchell is by no means turning away from "40 minutes of dread."

"We still have that dimension of athleticism with Samarie and DeNesha that is not as traditional as maybe some of the teams we have had here in the past," Mitchell said. "It is closer, but I still like our ability to disrupt other teams and you really need mobile post players that can get out on the floor and defend and they can truly do that in my mind."

The difference this year is that the Cats don't have to rely on the shock associated with going up against their pressure defense to win games. UK is forcing 25.5 turnovers per game this year - 1.3 fewer than last season - but allowing just 52.1 points per game - 7.4 fewer than 2011-12. Last season, Kentucky's opponents committed fewer than 20 turnovers in a game just six times and the Cats lost two of their seven games when it happened. This season, it's happened in three of UK's last four games, but the Cats have won all three.

Mitchell is calling for his team to trap in the full court less often this season because he has never had so much faith in the Cats' ability to contest shots and rebound.

"I think this is what Coach was looking for every year, we just couldn't do it because he didn't as feel as comfortable having other people on the court," Mathies said. "Now that he does and people are stepping up this year, this is our identity."

UK is holding its opponents to 36.7-percent shooting from the field, a marked improvement from 41.1 percent last season. Moreover, UK is blocking 5.2 shots a game after averaging just 3.7 last year. On the glass, Kentucky has an average margin of +5.7, more than double last season's average of +2.8.

"We are still very good defensively as far as disrupting you and applying pressure and making it tough on you to score," Mitchell said. "We just used to have to turn you over a million times and shoot a bunch of layups to win."

Though that led to unprecedented success over the last three seasons, Mitchell also said it played a role in UK's inability to advance past the Elite Eight against Oklahoma in 2010 and Connecticut in 2012. In those two games, the Cats forced just 39 turnovers and scored 10 fast-break points combined.

"What we found as we progressed deeper into the season was that we would run into teams that could handle the pressure and could put some pressure on you," Mitchell said. "Then it became a situation on who could score."

Fielding the most efficient and diverse offense of his UK tenure, Mitchell is hoping the Cats can break through that Elite-Eight wall.

"I think that hopefully we are built a little bit better for a deeper run because this group is very talented offensively," Mitchell said.

Mathies believes a defense that can adapt to a more traditional game while maintaining elements of pressure will help with that too.

"It's a whole different dynamic," she said. "We're doing less trapping actually, but we incorporate more defensive schemes, which I think will be very effective down the road. We can't play one style of ball and expect to win. You gotta be very versatile and I think that we're doing that. We're able to compete with different styles of play and different players and how they play."

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