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UK Hoops confident after wins without best efforts from Mathies, Stallworth

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DeNesha Stallworth had 12 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in UK's win over Texas A&M on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) DeNesha Stallworth had 12 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks in UK's win over Texas A&M on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
A'dia Mathies and DeNesha Stallworth have a lot to do with why Matthew Mitchell is so excited about his team. One a guard and the other a post player, they are Kentucky's two leading scorers. Without either, the Wildcats likely wouldn't be sitting at 23-3 and ranked top-10 nationally.

But over their last two games, the Cats have experienced life without Mathies and Stallworth, at least in spurts anyway.

In the second half against South Carolina, Mitchell elected to sit Stallworth for all but one minute as she worked through a mini-slump. In the first half at Texas A&M, Mathies played just five minutes due to foul trouble and was held scoreless.

Based on how well Mathies and Stallworth have played much of the season, that sounds like a recipe for a pair of losses against two ranked opponents. Instead, the Cats completed a 16-point second-half comeback against South Carolina with minimal contributions from Stallworth and built a halftime lead minus Mathies en route to a win over the Aggies.

"It's really amazing," Mitchell said. "In DeNesha and A'dia, you are talking about two of the most talented players and most physically gifted players in the league and you win two games against two of the best teams in the league without really a normal contribution from your two most talented players and it's really remarkable."

It didn't happen by accident either. Mathies and Stallworth are surrounded by more talent than has ever filled a UK Hoops roster. There's no doubt the Cats are better when the inside-outside duo is functioning well, but it's a boost to know they can win without prime performances from Mathies and Stallworth heading into a road rematch with LSU (15-10, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday.

"You just have to believe that it gives us confidence," Mitchell said. "It certainly does from a coaching perspective."

It also serves another purpose. Having seen just how capable their teammates are, a measure of pressure to perform is lifted off of Mathies and Stallworth. That likely doesn't mean a great deal to Mathies - the defending SEC Player of the Year - because she has gotten the job done throughout her career whether opponents leave her wide open or send triple teams her way.

But for Stallworth, it could make a major difference. At times, the Cal transfer has been dominant. Others - like a recent two-game stretch against South Carolina and Vanderbilt - she has had little go right.

"I think what DeNesha struggles with is just confidence in herself," Mitchell said. "All of us that can watch her think that's silly because she is so dynamic and so talented."

Without the weight of the world on her shoulders, her talent might just shine through more often.

It certainly did at Texas A&M. With 12 points and 12 rebounds, she had her first double-double in nearly a month. On defense, she registered a school-record seven blocks while going head-to-head with Kelsey Bone, the SEC's leading scorer and rebounder.

"She responded at the right time, we certainly needed that kind of performance Monday night," Mitchell said. "I would think DeNesha and all of our team, you should leave that game understanding what you accomplished and how well you played and I would think that would give you a lot of confidence."

UK may have won last week without Stallworth playing her best, but Mitchell would still rather avoid that situation going forward. The Cats have just three regular-season games left and trail Tennessee by a game in the SEC race with a matchup with the Lady Volunteers set for next weekend. First, however, UK must tame the Tigers for a second time.

On Jan. 27, the Cats defeated LSU 73-60 in a game Mitchell remembers as closer than the score might suggest. He's right, because UK led by four points with 1:57 left before closing on a 9-0 run.

"They are very, very talented and they have some explosive scorers at really three positions with Theresa Plaisance and two of their guards, (Adrienne Webb) and (Danielle Ballard), are really just difficult players to deal with," Mitchell said.

Not only are the Tigers talented, but they are playing for their tournament lives. LSU has won three straight starting with an upset of then-No. 9/10 Georgia and the Tigers last lost in a 64-62 heartbreaker to Tennessee.

"I just think it's going to be a real motivated group and a very talented group so it will be a tough game for us," Mitchell said.

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