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Every game special as UK Hoops prepares for final SEC road outing

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A'dia Mathies will play the final SEC road game of her UK career on Thursday at Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics) A'dia Mathies will play the final SEC road game of her UK career on Thursday at Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK Hoops has a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks.

In just a few days, the Wildcats will honor A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson - the two members of the winningest class in program history - on Senior Day. Minutes later, UK will take on perennial power Tennessee in a game that has become more of a rivalry with each passing season. Not long after, the Cats will head south for the Southeastern Conference Tournament with Selection Sunday soon to follow. And at some point along the way, Matthew Mitchell will likely move into the top spot on UK's all-time head-coaching wins list.

UK's next game, however, doesn't have the glitz and glamor of others on the horizon. The Cats aren't looking at a trip to take on Ole Miss that way though.

"It's very important," Mathies said. "We need every win we can get and this is the end of the year so every game is special."

Mathies knows her days as a Wildcat are numbered. In fact, she knows the exact math on how many games she has left. That's what makes them so precious.

"We have the possibility of playing four more games or we have the possibility of playing 11 more games and being in the national championship game," Mathies said on Wednesday. "We take every game as special and getting a win tomorrow would be what we need."

The priority for No. 10 Kentucky (23-4, 11-3 SEC) when it takes on Ole Miss (9-18, 2-12 SEC) at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday is getting back in the win column. The Cats lost a disappointing 77-72 decision against a motivated LSU team on Sunday. They've had a few days to reflect on what must be improved as they prepare for a team that they expect to be similarly motivated.

"We reviewed the video of that game and there were some areas where we can improve and do better and Ole Miss I know will be motivated," Mitchell said. "It's their last home game so that's always a night where people are really motivated to do well, last night in their gym."

Specifically, Mitchell has honed in on his team's first-half defensive effort. Capitalizing on an "uncharacteristic" UK performance, LSU put up 43 points and took a nine-point lead into halftime. Mitchell said the Tigers hit multiple shots with the shot clock approaching zero, including a few they don't normally convert. That's a lesson for the Cats that they can't afford to let such things deflate them.

"You can't always just play percentages," Mitchell said. "You can do that with a game plan, but once the game gets going you have to respond and make some adjustments. We just didn't play a good half of basketball and it cost us."

It was particularly costly because - with the loss - UK ceded control of its own destiny in the conference race. The Cats now sit in a three-way tie for second place, two games behind Tennessee. Instead of needing only two wins this week to guarantee at least a share of the SEC title, the Cats now need help. If Texas A&M should be Tennessee on Thursday, many scenarios come into play - up to and including a four-way tie for the SEC championship.

The Cats are leaving all that in the hands of others though. The only thing on their mind is what they know is in front of them.

"We've thought about that and it's really up the mercy of other people so we're not really focused on that," Mathies said. "We're just going to go out there and try to get a win on Thursday and on Sunday and try to head into the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament."

That's exactly the way Mitchell wants his team thinking.

"We just told 'em it's really important now to any faint hopes that we have still come back to us winning," Mitchell said. "It's not anything that we can really obsess over or put a whole lot of energy into. We need to put energy into trying to beat Ole Miss."

If UK beats Ole Miss and Tennessee to close out the regular season, it may result in a second SEC championship in a row and it may not. That's out of the Cats' hands. That doesn't mean it's not completely up to them to decide whether they reach the rest of their goals.

"I think we're just taking steps of moving forward and trying to win every game from here on out," Mathies said. "If we do that then we'd be national champions and SEC Tournament champions and whatever else. I think that's where our focus is right now."

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