As most teams do in the preseason, Kentucky held a closed scrimmage with the Dayton Flyers as they have over the last few seasons. Due to the proximity of the schools and the relationship between UK head coach Matthew Mitchell and UD coach Jim Jabir, the teams have developed a friendly rivalry that takes place before the real games get underway.
"We don't play each other in the regular season and we're in different leagues, so we can really be open with each other in the process of playing and it's been really good work for us," Mitchell said at Monday's press conference. "Jim's been really good about setting up situations and going through different things. They're very competitive and we're very competitive, so I think for both teams it's been a good development for us."
As fate would have it, both teams were shipped from the Midwest to the East Coast with the opportunity to reconvene in Queens, N.Y., for the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky seemed to be in for a bit of a scare after one half of play had the Cats trailing by a point to 15th-seeded Navy. A reinvigorated Wildcat squad led by a collective defensive clinic helped UK hold Navy to 15 points in the second half to carry Kentucky to a 20-point first-round victory, its largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game.
Dayton, a No. 7 seed, was in for quite a battle as well, facing host and No. 10 seed St. John's. It was a back and forth affair as Dayton seemed to have control, but with the crowd at its back, the Red Storm forced overtime. Dayton would ultimately prevail after an additional overtime period to pull off the 96-90 double-overtime victory.
Mitchell doesn't believe that the extra wear and tear on Dayton should be an issue for the Flyers after getting a day of rest on Monday. However, he does feel that much like his team showed in the second half against Navy, Kentucky needs to come out with great energy and intensity to get the win Tuesday night.
"I don't know that yesterday's game will have anything to do with that," said Mitchell. "I think that we need to really be tenacious on defense because they're such a good team. We played early (Sunday) and I think they'll have plenty of time to recover. People have a funny way of getting ready to play this time of year so I don't think that the double overtime is going to impact it and I think we need to focus us."
Just like Mitchell doesn't expect Sunday's Dayton game to affect Tuesday's outcome, senior guard and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year A'dia Mathies knows her performance from Sunday won't affect her attitude heading into the second round.
Mathies, for the first time in her collegiate career - and maybe for the first time in her life - played a game without making a field goal. Though she did not make much of an impact offensively, she was still a factor defensively in UK's 20-point route of the Midshipmen.
"She made some great defensive plays yesterday," said Mitchell. "We went back and watched the film and she made a few defensive plays that I don't think anybody could have made. I think she did some good things there. She got some loose balls. Shots didn't fall for her, but she'll play better tomorrow."
Mathies has similar expectations, though she's more than willing to do whatever it takes for her team to win.
"I feel like that's how I am with any game," said Mathies. "It might not show up in the stat sheet with getting 12 steals or 15 boards, but I feel like if you play aggressive and do the little things, that should help and that's what I'm going to focus on."
That's what Mitchell is looking for out of his team: to focus on Kentucky and not worry so much about its opponent. If the Wildcats continue to play their brand of basketball, the rest should take care of itself.
That's also why Mitchell doesn't put too much stock in his team's preseason meeting with the Flyers. While those around the program say that the scrimmage was close and competitive, the two teams on that day likely have completely different identities than way back in October.
"I think it would be a mistake for either team to take very much from the scrimmage. It was real, real early and we didn't have a lot of things in," said Mitchell. "It's a long, long time ago and I don't know how much you can put in that especially at that stage of the season."
At that point in the season, UK has yet to implement its offense or its press. That scrimmage is usually a way for Mitchell and his staff to gauge where they are defensively.
Fast forward from October late March, and the Cats have a pretty good grasp on just how tough they are defensively. They will look to use that as their major weapon against Dayton Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET at Carnesecca Arena and any other opponents they may face along the way if they continue to advance in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think with any game we just want to keep the pressure on and wear them down," said Mathies. "Just knowing that they've got 10 extra minutes on their legs and that could potentially help us on the long run, I really think we need to put a focus on that and take them out of the comfort zone. I think we're the best team at doing that, so just playing aggressive and playing hard and I think that should help us in the end."