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UK Hoops pushing reset button in bid to repeat as SEC champ

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A'dia Mathies scored all 10 of her points in the final 11:54 of UK's 78-56 win in a non-conference finale vs. Marist on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) A'dia Mathies scored all 10 of her points in the final 11:54 of UK's 78-56 win in a non-conference finale vs. Marist on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Less than 10 months ago, Matthew Mitchell was climbing a ladder in Memorial Coliseum. His Kentucky Wildcats had just clinched sole possession of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title and were celebrating the feat.

The memory is still fresh in his mind and many of the players from that team are still playing for him, but Mitchell is treating the championship like a piece of history. With the Cats getting ready to open play in another SEC season and try for back-to-back titles, he's treating this as a wholly separate journey.

"We are not approaching it as being the defending champion because it is a different team and a different year," Mitchell said.

Mitchell, however, is not trying to erase what happened last season. The Cats are proud of the recent past and they know their opponents are aware of it too.

"Through the strong effort of players that have played before them, and it is some of the players on this current team, Kentucky has changed their profile over the last three seasons," Mitchell said. "So you do need to expect a great effort from each opponent, you do need to understand that people know what they are going to get when they play us so they are going to raise their level to try to match the intensity that we bring."

The sixth-ranked Cats (12-1) certainly know that's coming with Florida (11-3) set to visit Memorial Coliseum. UK will host the Gators for both teams' SEC opener at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

"We have a great amount of respect for Florida," Mitchell said. "It's always a tough game with them. They're always well coached and well prepared and very physical. We've had some really, really tough battles with them over the last few years."

Last season, UK swept the season series against Florida, winning two regular-season matchups and an SEC Tournament game by an average of just 4.0 points. As Mitchell said though, the Cats are a different team.

The most marked contrast between this year and last is in the front court. Samarie Walker, who played just a half-season after transferring from UConn, or another of UK's post players was often alone on the interior, surrounded by four guards. Now, Mitchell regularly deploys two-big lineups, starting with Walker and California transfer DeNesha Stallworth. The two juniors have formed a potent duo, one which has forced opponents to first think about guarding the interior when scouting Kentucky.

That's a somewhat startling development given that A'dia Mathies was the SEC Player of the Year in 2011-12. The senior guard doesn't mind the attention being elsewhere.

"It's great to not have all the pressure on me and have other players they have to put focus on in their scouting reports," Mathies said. "I think it's great to have a well-rounded team even more so this year than in the past."

It's not as if Mathies has completely retreated into the shadows. She still leads the team in shots attempted and scoring, though she was held scoreless through almost 30 minutes in UK's final non-conference outing against Marist. She twice exited the game due to injury as the Cats found themselves in a single-digit game late in the second half. Mathies would eventually get on the board for the 117th time in as many collegiate games and she would score 10 points in the waning minutes to salt away the 78-56 victory.

Mitchell praised Mathies' ability to impact a game without scoring, but he knows the Cats will need more clutch efforts like the one she delivered against Marist.

"She doesn't have to score, but when a game was in question on Sunday, she really asserted herself at the end and looked good," Mitchell said. "In conference play, we'll need a real steady performance from her each and every game and making sure that she's involved."

Even though this season is a new one, Mathies has been through the SEC ringer before. Mathies might not be the only player drawing attention these days, but there's still no one more important to her team.

"I'm real confident A'dia understands what we need from her," Mitchell said. "We need her to be real aggressive and be a part of what we're trying to get done."

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