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Mindset the priority as UK Hoops prepares for South Carolina rematch

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Matthew Mitchell leads UK into a rematch with South Carolina on Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell leads UK into a rematch with South Carolina on Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Going into a trip to South Carolina on Jan. 24, Matthew Mitchell knew his team was in for a physical battle. The Gamecocks' reputation and ranking was built on defense and rebounding, so there were no mysteries about how the Wildcats would have to play to win.

Unfortunately, the Cats just didn't react as well as they needed to and their first Southeastern Conference followed. Three weeks later, they will have another chance.

"When we went into Columbia we won 17 in a row and they came out extremely aggressive, very, very physical, and we just never responded," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It was a disappointing game for us, but now we have the benefit of that experience and we've had much tougher practices and we should be at least aware of what is coming (Thursday) night."

This time around, it will be the No. 16/14 Gamecocks (20-4, 8-3 SEC) who have to travel as No. 9/7 UK (21-3, 9-2 SEC) wears pink Nike uniforms for its annual Play4Kay game in Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Just a week and a half removed from a disappointing home loss to Georgia, Mitchell had already ratcheted up the intensity in practice as the Cats enter the final five games of conference play. Things have been taken up another notch with the rematch looming.

"The thing for us is we've tried to highlight the hustle plays that South Carolina defeated us on," Mitchell said. "That was really all it was. We got a ton of stops in the game. We disrupted them a bunch of times. It was not a masterpiece from South Carolina from an offensive execution standpoint. They just flat out wanted the game more."

UK held South Carolina to just 37.7-percent shooting for the game, but shot 32.2 percent from the field and failed often to finish through contact. The Gamecocks grabbed 14 offensive rebounds for a 42.4-percent offensive-rebounding rate and repeatedly beat the Cats to loose balls. Because of how solid South Carolina is defensively, UK can't expect to explode offensively even though the Cats are more than capable of doing just that against most any opponent.

"That's what you try to say is that this is a mindset," Mitchell said. "It's not a talent issue. We have plenty of talent. It is a mindset: Are you going to get pushed around or are you going to get knocked down? Are you going to try to really, really be strong; stay on your feet, stay on balance? You have to be real tough in this game because they are extremely physical."

Due in part to an inability to match intensity with intensity Columbia, S.C., Mitchell opted to move to a 2-3 zone. It was effective, as UK cut an once-eight-point deficit to two with less than 30 seconds left before losing 55-50. That doesn't mean the home crowd should expect to see more zone in its second-to-last opportunity to see the Cats play in Memorial.

"That's generally more dictated by the flow of the game and what we feel like will be important," Mitchell said. "I think we can be very disruptive to them and our man-to-man defense, if we work hard at it and hustle, I think we can do some things there. We'll use whatever we can to try to get the victory tomorrow night. It's a very important game."

Among other reasons, it's important because both the Cats and Gamecocks are in the thick of a conference race. UK is in sole possession of third place. South Carolina, meanwhile, is tied for fourth at 8-3 with a chance to pull into a tie with UK by sweeping the season series.

For Kentucky, games against first-place Tennessee and second-place Texas A&M are still on the horizon. Those will be big no matter what, but how big depends largely on what the Cats do before then as they defend last season's SEC title.

"Trust me, I want to win it," Mitchell said. "I want to win the league. We've made no bones about that. ... It's gonna be a grind to do and that starts with a 40-minute grind (Thursday) night."

South Carolina, as pretty much every UK opponent in SEC play has, will be ready to play. Mitchell said last week that he is finally beginning to understand what his coworker across the hall - John Calipari - means when he talks about Kentucky being "everybody's Super Bowl." That makes every game hard, but it makes the wins all the more rewarding. What Mitchell wants is for his team to rise to the occasion every time, much like Coach Cal's Cats did en route to a 2012 national title.

"I think if you embrace and if you understand it and you don't shy away from it and back down from it, I think it's tremendous," Mitchell said. "Because it's really what I've tried to tell our team: If we will play with maximum effort and maximum intensity and we'll play together, we're hard to beat. I don't care who it is in this league or this country."

Conwright's recovery from knee injury 'ahead of schedule'

On Dec. 26, Maegan Conwright was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Just over a month later, she underwent surgery to repair her knee. Today, she's off crutches and wowing doctors and trainers during the recovery process.

"She is ahead of schedule and that's a credit to how hard she's worked and her attitude," Mitchell said. "These first few weeks out of surgery are so difficult, painful physically, taxing mentally and emotionally and she has just done a fantastic job."

The topic is a timely one after Wednesday's news that Nerlens Noel had sustained the same injury. He will hope to move similarly quickly through the recovery process and Jen Smith of the Lexington Herald Leader has a story about Conwright planning to reach out to her fellow Wildcat. Check it out here.

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why no televised coverage of Lady Cats going up against rival South Carolina?

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  • Guy Ramsey: It's unfortunately out of our hands. TV assignments are determined by the SEC's contract and then it's up to UK read more
  • Bridget Scully: why no televised coverage of Lady Cats going up against rival South Carolina? read more