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'Everybody's Super Bowl': Mitchell starting to see where Coach Cal is coming from

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Bria Goss scored 16 of her 17 points after halftime Thursday night in UK's overtime win over Arkansas. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Bria Goss scored 16 of her 17 points after halftime Thursday night in UK's overtime win over Arkansas. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell was never a big believer in John Calipari's adage of "We are every team's Super Bowl."

Ten games into the Southeastern Conference schedule and Mitchell is now a certified believer.

"I was very skeptical about that because I had never been through it," said Mitchell. "People can think I'm crazy. I thought people were crazy for talking about it, but I'm a believer now. It is unbelievable what our players are going through right now as far as what they're facing game after game from an effort level and an execution level."

Kentucky sits at 8-2 in the conference, 20-3 overall. Two of those SEC losses have come to top-15 teams in the country. So, in the grand scheme of things, the Wildcats are sitting pretty. But they've had to work at it, and they will continue to have to work at it to get where they are trying to go this season.

After a bye week in which the Cats played no weekday games, Mitchell gave his team the opportunity to rest and rejuvenate to get ready for the stretch run in the SEC.

The game after the resting period, UK hosted No. 13 Georgia. Kentucky seemingly had the game in hand before a late Georgia surge and failed execution down the stretch doomed the Wildcats in a 75-71 loss.

Mitchell looks back now and wonders if easing up allowed his team to lose a bit of its edge.

"We played like a really, really talented team on Sunday, but a soft team when it got tough and Georgia just wouldn't go away and smacked us there at the end," said Mitchell.

After the loss, Mitchell decided to shake things up a bit with two-a-day sessions including 6 a.m. practices to try and increase the intensity and urgency of his players.

Early returns were bleak Thursday night at Arkansas, but in the final 10 minutes it appeared Mitchell's message had finally gotten through.

"We just played as hard as we could down the stretch after we were able to withstand that poor play early and we were terrific," said Mitchell. "I just think that's what we need to get used to and it's probably something we're going to see the rest of the season."

Despite Arkansas' 3-7 record in the league, they brought their very best in a date with the No. 10 Wildcats. With a chance to make a statement and get a much-needed win at home, the Razorbacks played one of their best games of the season against top competition, further proof that the Wildcats are a hunted breed.

"I'm just telling you now," said Mitchell. "Arkansas is 3-7 in the league and has played real tough games against opponents, but they were unbelievable last night. From an execution standpoint they were so sharp.

"They made shot after shot that you put the tape on and you didn't see them making. It was an absolute battle last night and we embraced it."

While they embraced the pressure and competition on Thursday night, they wilted against Georgia. In fact, the two games were mirror images of each other. After a slow start against the Razorbacks, Kentucky stormed back, forced overtime, and earned a road victory in the SEC, an always-notable feat.

Sophomore guard Bria Goss played a large role in the comeback effort. In fact, the come-from-behind victory was just as important to the team as it was for the return of Goss to her old ways.

After struggling offensively over the last few contests, Mitchell opted to sit his talented sophomore to see if she would respond as a reserve. Goss exceeded expectations coming off the bench for the first time this season.

While Kentucky was quiet as a whole through the first 20 minutes trailing 33-28 at half, Goss torched the Razorbacks for 16 of her 17 total points after the midway point. While she shot the ball well (4 of 8 from the field), she made her biggest impression at the free throw stripe. Goss was rock-solid from the line knocking down 9-of-10 attempts.

The performance was critical in Kentucky's overtime victory, but it may have been even more important in terms of Goss' contribution to their postseason hopes in the near future.

"It's frustrating for our team because the reason you think we are capable of making a Final Four or being a championship-caliber team, you include Bria Goss playing well in that formula," said Mitchell. "You really need her to play well."

But as a coach, it's even more important to see a player who works so hard for her team and the program to have a successful night.

"It is a level of frustration but it really makes a night like last night very rewarding to see the kid hang in there and get rewarded with some good play and a very crucial victory," said Mitchell.

Kentucky will be in for a similar battle when its travels to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Vanderbilt Commodores. Vanderbilt has given UK trouble in the past despite Kentucky's four-game winning streak in the series.

The Wildcats are in the midst of a difficult stretch where they will play five of their last seven games on the road, including Thursday at Arkansas. They've past their first test, but chances are good that UK will see the same type of effort from the Commodores that they have from every other SEC team this season when they square off Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

"We'll need to go out and play real, real hard," said Mitchell. "They are always a difficult team to go against with their defense. They really guard the ball well and make you make great decisions.

"It will be a tough game on the road for us and we'll need to prepare well over the next couple of days to have a chance to win."

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