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Stakes high for UK Hoops-Texas A&M rematch

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A'dia Mathies scored a team-high 23 points in UK's 65-62 win over Texas A&M on Jan. 10. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) A'dia Mathies scored a team-high 23 points in UK's 65-62 win over Texas A&M on Jan. 10. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
As Texas A&M took the podium following a loss to Kentucky on Jan. 10 for a postgame press conference, the Aggies couldn't help but look forward to a chance at hosting the Wildcats a little over a month later. UK overcame a nine-point deficit in that game before holding on for a 65-62 victory.

With the rematch set for Monday, the Aggies still figure to have a little retribution on their mind. But neither team will be too focused on the past and that previous matchup. There's just too much to play for in the present.

"It's a big game," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said succinctly.

For the Cats, their defense of their first Southeastern Conference title in three decades is still completely in their hands. For it to remain that way, the game with No. 10 Texas A&M (20-5, 10-1 SEC) on Monday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) is a must-win.

No. 8 UK (22-3, 10-2 SEC) currently sits in third place in the league standings, just a half-game behind A&M and a full game behind first-place Tennessee. A win on Big Monday in front of a national television audience would give UK sole possession of second place as well as another impossible-to-ignore resume-building win.

"It's two of the best teams in the country, two of the best teams certainly in our league and it'll be a tremendous matchup," Mitchell said.

The first time around, it was a struggle for the Cats on defense in the first half. The Aggies shot 58.6 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes before UK buckled down and held A&M to just 25 points on 32.3-percent shooting in the second half. Mitchell was happy with his team's effort throughout, but will be looking to channel it more effectively this time around, particularly against a frontcourt combination of Kelsey Bone and Kristi Bellock that combined for 43 points and 25 rebounds against the Cats in Memorial Coliseum.

"We'll have to learn from that game," Mitchell said. "I think it's probably important for us to figure out a little bit better way to defend them. They got a lot of easy buckets in that game although we won, and they didn't score a ton. I think we need to make them work harder to score."

Even after UK settled in on defense and got its transition game going to build a second-half lead, the Aggies - playing their first season as members of the SEC - hung around and actually had a chance to tie the game with a last-second 3-pointer that missed.

"I thought it was a very even game," Mitchell said. I don't think we're going to go in there and just smash them. I don't think it's that kind of game. We'll have to be prepared to play 40 minutes and you can't let them run off and hide from you."

Teams have tried all season to run off and hide from the Cats, but it's been no guarantee of victory. Four times this season, UK has faced second-half deficits or seven points or more and come back to win - including that first A&M game.  The Cats have even done it twice on the road - at Louisville and at Arkansas - but they'd surely rather to get it done a little more traditionally on Monday.

"We will certainly go down there with the intention of winning and we'll prepare to win," Mitchell said. "I think this team will have a strong desire to win so it'll be a terrific game. They're a terrific team, well coached, and it should be a real test for us."

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