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UK Hoops gets shot of confidence heading into return trip to Alabama

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Samarie Walker is averaging 9.6 points per game and leads Kentucky in rebounds (113), steals (33) and blocks (24). (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Samarie Walker is averaging 9.6 points per game and leads Kentucky in rebounds (113), steals (33) and blocks (24). (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Samarie Walker has played parts of three seasons of college basketball, but she can't remember a game more physical or more hard-fought than the one Kentucky won over Florida on Thursday.

She's been in battles with the Southeastern Conference championship on the line, started games in the SEC Tournament and led her team in scoring in an Elite Eight, but the back-and-forth battle between the Wildcats and Gators sticks in her mind.

Whenever Kentucky made a run, Florida had an answer. Whenever the Cats thought they had solved that pesky 2-3 zone, it seemed as if the Gators added a sixth defender.

In spite of being tested in countless ways, Kentucky came away with a victory to open conference play. UK had some big wins in November and December, but nothing showed the Cats what they're capable of more than that 76-69 win.

"That was a very tough game, one of the toughest games I know I've ever played in, I think all of us," Walker said. "I think that we have learned that we'll never give up, that we can trust each other, that no one will ever give up and we all played really hard and we were really tough."

Matthew Mitchell knows there's no substitute for that kind of mental toughness.

"We really were able to overcome some adversity in the game and whether that was good play by Florida or a bounce not going our way, or a difficult call in the game, or whatever it may be," Mitchell said. "They really responded to every tough situation last night."

The sixth-ranked Cats (13-1, 1-0 SEC) will have another opportunity to respond to a difficult situation as they will face the first of many quick turnarounds in SEC play in traveling to face Alabama (10-4, 0-1 SEC) on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET. However, it's not a wholly unfamiliar scenario. Twice during the month of December the Wildcats played two games in three days, winning all four. Three of those victories came against teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament.

"I think Coach has definitely prepared us well for that, even through the schedule through preseason," senior guard Kastine Evans said. "It's more of a mental aspect now. All of our work has been done now in the preseason."

Alabama didn't reach the NCAA Tournament like those previous opponents, but that doesn't mean the Crimson Tide - a team Mitchell called "very athletic and aggressive" - isn't capable of knocking off the Cats. For proof, look no further than last season.

The last time Kentucky was in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Cats had lost two games in a row - their first in conference play - and were in desperate need of a victory to right the ship and stay afloat in the SEC race. Instead, UK fell behind 50-28 at halftime before a furious second-half rally came up short in a 77-75 defeat.

"It was a close game in the end, but we didn't have the energy we needed in that game," Mitchell said.

Given that eight players on this year's roster played in the game, the Cats probably don't need any reminders about one of last year's most disappointing losses, but Mitchell plans to bring it up anyway when UK watches tape as a team on Friday afternoon.

"We won't dwell on it or harp on it, but just for them to know and to get our veterans' attention I think we will talk about it," Mitchell said.

Evans, who played a team-high 32 minutes in the loss, agrees that talk about last year's game will be limited, but it will certainly be in the back of her mind.

"It's only come up once just because that's the reality of what it was," Evans said. "We went down there, didn't play the game we wanted to play and got beat. So that's obviously going to be some motivation coming into this game and preparing these next few days for this game."

The Cats certainly won't allow any lingering bad vibes about that game affect them negatively, not with their confidence brimming after beating Florida.

"I think we've been past it," Walker said. "It happened and we know it's not going to happen again. I think we're a lot more talented this year and more together as a team."

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