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Mitchell's second-half shakeup sparks comeback win over South Carolina

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Jennifer O'Neill had a game-high 19 points in UK's comeback victory over South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill had a game-high 19 points in UK's comeback victory over South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell had settled into using a two-post player lineup all season. After he had built his Kentucky program to unprecedented prominence largely on the strength of four-guard looks, the Wildcats had played much more conventionally in 2012-13.

Nonetheless, when his team found itself down double digits and searching for answers at halftime against South Carolina, he couldn't help but pull a throwback move in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night.

"We just felt like if we could change it up a little bit and get some energy out there, so we went four-guard lineup - sort of went back old-school Kentucky there and went four guards and one post," Mitchell said.

The Cats had just delivered their worst performance in a half since November and were down 44-30 at the break. South Carolina shot 56.3 percent from the field over the first 20 minutes with many of the Gamecock makes coming on wide-open layups off dribble penetration. Thanks to the Mitchell-mandated four-guard set, Kentucky rallied from 16 points down to win 78-74 - the largest comeback of Mitchell's UK tenure.

"We had a hard time in the first half, but you have to give our kids a lot of credit for hanging in and overcoming a significant deficit to earn what will be a great, great victory," Mitchell said of the win, which allowed the Cats (22-3, 10-2 Southeastern Conference) to maintain sole possession of third place in the SEC well within striking distance of Texas A&M and Tennessee.

Mitchell knew he had to something drastic. At first, he considered going with five guards - radical relative even to UK's small-ball roots - but his assistants eventually sold him on starting with forward/center Azia Bishop on the floor alongside Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, A'dia Mathies and Kastine Evans. The next decision he had to make was how he would deliver the message.

In her four years playing for Mitchell, Mathies has seen all sides of her head coach. Even she wasn't sure what to expect after such a poor effort.

"We didn't know what he was going to do when he came in," Mathies said.

Oftentimes, such a substantial locker room lineup switch is accompanied by a, shall we say, animated, halftime speech. The Cats, however, pleasantly avoided their coach's ire.

"Coach Mitchell came in with a great attitude at halftime, which I think helped us more than hurt us, and just told us what we needed to do to get it done," Evans said.

Mitchell opted for the calm, pragmatic approach because he knew his team had seen the same thing he just had. He decided to postpone figuring out why it happened until later and address how to rectify it then and there. Mitchell listed what the Cats needed to do better and how they were going to get it done and that was that.

He believed going with four guards would immediately inject energy, and he was right. He thought the smaller lineup would combat the dribble penetration that had been the source of so many of the Cats' ills, and he was right about that too. He saw openings in the SEC's top-ranked defense that could be created by the spacing with more shooters on the floor, and - you guessed it - he was spot on.

Mitchell deserves credit for recognizing all of that - though he says he should have done so sooner - but his players deserve even more credit for executing. Occupying the post, DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker have been central to UK's success this season. Because of that and the depth behind them, the Cats had logged essentially no practice time with the four-guard lineup he was turning to. Thanks to past experience and two uniquely adaptable players, UK pulled it off.

"I do have a comfort level with it because you have some smart kids like Kastine and A'dia that don't have to take a thousand reps there and you can plug 'em in," Mitchell said.

UK quickly began to chip into the lead. After South Carolina scored the second half's first basket to put the Cats in a 16-point hole, they outscored the Gamecocks by seven over the remainder of the first four-minute segment. By the under-12 media timeout, UK trailed just 58-52.

South Carolina, buoyed in part by the confidence of a home win over the Cats three weeks ago, wasn't going to wilt though. The Gamecocks answered when UK cut their lead to four points and led 68-60 with 7:19 left. The Cats' next push, however, finally put them over the top, and the two central players were the ones on whom Mitchell relied to make the four-guard lineup work.

Mathies hit four free throws in a row to highlight six straight points by UK. Then, trailing 68-66 with 3:53 left, she trailed on a fast break and O'Neill found her for a wide-open look from 3. Even though she was just 3 of 16 from the field at that point, she confidently shot. Her teammates were confident too.

"Bria was just saying the play was just too perfect," said Mathies, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and four steals. "She knew it was going in so she already started getting back (on defense)."

On the other end, Ashley Bruner hit 1-of-2 free throws to tie the game. Evans had the answer, draining a 3 to give UK a 72-69 lead, just as when she hit a go-ahead basket with 25 seconds left to give the Cats a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Counting the two free throws she hit with less than 10 seconds left to ice the win, Evans scored seven of her 11 points in the final 193 seconds.

"We're really fortunate that she decided to come to Kentucky because she's one of these kids that helped us change the culture here," Mitchell said.

Much of that culture was established playing a smaller lineup, but the two-big look has had plenty of success as well this season. How much Evans is asked to muscle up and play power forward at Texas A&M on Monday and beyond remains to be seen.

"Tonight's good to know that we can shake it up a little bit and we can do something a little bit different and throw something different at you," Mitchell said. "That's a positive, but it's too early to tell what we'll do there."

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