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Mitchell has UK Hoops' bench where he wants it heading into SEC Tournament

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UK's bench produced 24 points in 58 minutes of a 78-65 victory over Tennessee on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK's bench produced 24 points in 58 minutes of a 78-65 victory over Tennessee on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell's teams have developed a reputation for pressure defense, an up-tempo style of play and a deep bench in recent years. This season, the Wildcats have applied plenty of pressure and ran whenever they've been able to, but the depth hasn't always been there.

On multiple occasions, Mitchell has gone with a shortened rotation. With unprecedented talent on the first team and relative inexperience among the backups, he's often simply been more comfortable that way. That was most recently the case in a loss at LSU during which only eight Wildcats saw the floor and six played 23 minutes or more.

But after that defeat, Mitchell realized things needed to change. As the Cats prepared for their final two games of the regular season and tournament play, Mitchell called for a meeting with the reserves.

"We didn't have the starters in the meeting that day where we just tried to define some roles and get them a little bit more focused in on what we are looking for from them," Mitchell said. "I just thought that that group had really been practicing poorly, lacking focus, each person on that group not giving and playing to their strengths."

Mitchell finished the meeting by laying down a challenge.

"I just told them before the Ole Miss game you are going in, you are playing the second four minutes, that's the plan," Mitchell said. "I don't care what happens."

True to his word, Mitchell sent his second unit to the scorer's table after the first media timeout. Without a single starter on the floor, UK extended its lead from 8-4 to 14-6 en route to a 90-65 victory. In that game, no Wildcat played more than 27 minutes and all 11 (usual starter DeNesha Stallworth did not make the trip due to flu-like symptoms) played double-digit minutes.

"I think that energized them a little bit, got them a little more focused," Mitchell said. "I don't think that's how it ought to be. I think you ought to earn your time, but it's a long season and I just thought some of the kids had gotten discouraged so hopefully that sharpened them up a little bit."

Heading into a Senior Day showdown with Southeastern Conference champion Tennessee, Mitchell made it clear he would do the same. The challenge was a stiffer one against the then-No. 8 Lady Volunteers, but the bench once again got the job done. During the reserves' 3:04 of early playing time, UK outscored Tennessee 6-4 to set the tone for the remainder of a 78-65 win, one of UK's most impressive performances of the season.

The timing of the bench's reemergence couldn't be better.

On Friday at 6 p.m. ET in Duluth, Ga., the Cats open postseason play with an SEC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against either seventh-seeded Vanderbilt or 10th-seeded Missouri. If Kentucky continues to win, it could be the first of three games in 48 hours. The value of depth in a quick-turnaround situation cannot be overstated.

"I think that could be a great thing for us in the tournament setting," Mitchell said. "We just need to make sure that we get production out of that group. The second unit went in against Tennessee and increased the lead so that was huge."

Junior guard Kastine Evans is quite familiar with what it takes to come off the bench and be successful; for the first 22 games of the season, she was UK's sixth woman. But over the last month, she has swapped roles with Bria Goss and moved into the starting lineup. Evans also knows well what a capable bench can mean to a team.

"That gives us a lot of confidence in our team especially knowing that we've got people who can back us up and people who are very talented and can come in and play minutes that we will need them to play this late in the season with our bodies and just how the season goes at the end," Evans said.

"Confidence" is the word that comes up most often when talking to Mitchell and his players this week, and not only with regard to the bench.

"I think (Tennessee was) definitely a game needed for us as a team because that definitely helped our confidence and just knowing that, if we play like that every game and as a team, that it should be a pretty great outcome on the scoreboard," Stallworth said.

That win over Tennessee was a reminder of just how good the Cats can be when they are clicking. Mitchell praised the way his players "poured themselves" into preparation for the Lady Vols. Now, in a week during which the opponent will remain unknown until Thursday, he's asking them for the same kind of focus in improving themselves.

"I think this week's more about pouring themselves into this team and what we can do to get better," Mitchell said. "There are some things that we can do offensively I think to get even better than what we're doing right now."

Any improvements will boost the Cats for the NCAA Tournament and Mitchell certainly has that in the back of his mind. However, the SEC Tournament is at hand and the Cats want desperately to win it after narrowly missing out on a second SEC regular-season title in as many seasons.

"It's in my mind one of the great sporting events in the country, the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament," Mitchell said. "A lot of great fans show up for it from all the schools and it's just a great atmosphere. The champion always has to play really good basketball over the course of several days. It would really be an honor for us to win it."

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