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Unselfishness defining UK Hoops in unbeaten SEC start

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Jennifer O'Neill leads Kentucky with 44 assists on the season, including 24 in her last four games. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill leads Kentucky with 44 assists on the season, including 24 in her last four games. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With all five starters averaging more than nine points a game, Kentucky's balanced scoring has gotten plenty of attention, and rightfully so. More often than not, Matthew Mitchell's has five players on the floor capable of creating their own shot and that, in turn, has made life difficult on opposing defenses.

What has been talked about far less frequently has been the Wildcats' passing balance.

Through 18 games, nine players have racked up double-digit assists, matching last year's 35-game total. As you might expect, UK's point guard - Jennifer O'Neill, leads the way with 44, but she's trailed closely by DeNesha Stallworth (41) and A'dia Mathies (38), the team's two leading scorers.

"I think it speaks to how they feel about each other and how our mentality as a team is right now," Mitchell said. "I just don't sense that they really care about anything more than winning. I don't think they care a whole lot about who is doing what."

The Cats may not care who's responsible on any given night, but UK is averaging 14.2 assists per game, the highest total of the Mitchell era by a wide margin. Already in 2012-13, eight different players have led the team in assists in at least one game as UK (17-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) prepares to put a 16-game winning streak on the line against Auburn (13-5, 2-3 SEC) on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.

"I just think it speaks to the chemistry they have created," Mitchell said. "I they care a lot about each other, they are in there playing hard for each other and I don't think they are real worried about statistics."

That unselfishness extends well beyond a simple willingness to pass the ball. With talent at every position, opponents have to choose which Cat to try to limit on offense. As a result, roles change on a nightly basis and usually seamlessly.

Perhaps the best example is Bria Goss.

The guard was named SEC Freshman of the Year last season, finishing as just one of two Wildcats to average double figures in scoring. This year, she has seen her averages dip in points, shot attempts, assists and rebounds, but her importance has only grown.

"I think her value for our team is off the charts," Mitchell said.

She may not be relied on to score as often due to the emergence of Stallworth, O'Neill and Samarie Walker, but don't let the statistics fool you. She is a better player than a year ago and it begins on defense. In fact, UK's defense begins with her.

"She starts our defense against every opponent, no matter who they have, she is the person that gets it all started for us and we identify ourselves with tenacious defense," Mitchell said. "She is the most tenacious right now and so her role is invaluable, her contributions are invaluable and we wouldn't be close to the team we are now without her."

With her tenacity in guarding opposing point guards, Goss has come to exemplify an honor Mitchell has begun giving out after each game. To the players who best show the ferocity and aggressiveness he calls for, Mitchell gives the "Junkyard Dog Award." The award is emblazoned with the Junkyard Dog himself - a favorite professional wrestler of Mitchell - and inspired by real-life junkyard dogs.

"If you're stealing some parts off a car to put some change in your pocket, the junkyard dog does not allow that," Mitchell said. "The junkyard dog is going to tear your tail up if you get in there."

Goss was one of three players recognized for her efforts during the Missouri game and is likely to be a candidate every game the rest of the season.

"I just want to play the roles that I'm given on the team," Goss said. "If it's a night where I need to be the junkyard dog to their point guard, then that's what I need to do. It's not always easy."

Accepting that has been an adjustment for the former McDonald's All-American though.

"It definitely has just because in high school and even some last year I was more of a go-to person," Goss said. "Like I said, I gotta play the role that I need to on the team. If that's being able to shut down their point guard and getting other people open looks then that's what's gonna happen."

However, it's not as if Goss's scoring has evaporated. She is third on the team at 9.3 points and 7.9 shots per game. She has scored in double figures 10 times in 18 outings and Mitchell believes there's one simple way she can put even more points on the board.

"She is altering too many shots in and around the basket and we are talking to her about it and trying to work her way through it," Mitchell said. "She missed one last night that she missed. Nobody made her miss it."

Goss can also benefit from the talent around her. Mathies and Stallworth each rank in the top 10 in scoring in the SEC, which means Goss usually won't be the top priority on any opponent's scouting report.

"She may be down on the list, and that's good for Kentucky because she would be a player if you overlook her, she is going to burn you," Mitchell said. "We are in a good spot right now with our roster and our players and if you overlook Bria Goss, that probably isn't going to be very good for you."

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